God seems to grow more merciful over the course of the Bible. Or maybe the human understanding of God matures. The God of the Exodus is violently punitive. In the Book of Jonah, a later biblical work, God argues with a hard-hearted prophet who begrudges divine mercy for an evil kingdom that repents. The story ends with God’s question to Jonah: “And should I not care about Nineveh, that great city, in which there are more than a hundred and twenty thousand persons who do not know their right hand from their left [i.e., children], and many beasts as well” (Jonah 4:11). If God “becomes” more compassionate, maybe we should too.
On this issue, Christians might draw wisdom from Martin Buber. In commenting on the notion of “holy war” in ancient Israel in the context of 1 Samuel 15:3, where the prophet Samuel demands that Saul kill all the Amalekites, including women and children, Buber asserts: “Samuel has misunderstood God.” He continues: “An observant Jew of this nature, when he has to choose between God and the Bible, chooses God…. In the work of the throats and pens out of which the text of the Old Testament has arisen, misunderstanding has again and again attached itself to understanding…. Nothing can make me believe in a God who punishes Saul because he has not murdered his enemy.”*
In Islam God has 99 attributes. God is Loving (Al Wadud), the Merciful (Al Rahman), the Forgiving (Al Ghafur), the Peaceful ( Al Salaam), but God is Dominant and Subduing (Al Qahhar) too. The Qur’an reiterates that God’s love and mercy extend over everything and He is the most forgiving (6:12, 6:54). However, in this life as well as in the hereafter, God punishes those who spread evil on earth. The story of Pharaoh in the Qur’an is a perfect example. God would not destroy a community for its wrongdoing if its people were unaware of right and wrong (6:131). Nor would God destroy a community merely because of its disbelief as long as its people behave justly and righteously towards one another (11:117). In other words, God may punish, but people bring misfortune upon themselves because of their deeds and behavior (16:33). I do not see any contradiction in God’s being loving and punishing because both come about in response to one’s moral deeds.