To many people, the God of the Old Testament seems different than the God of the New Testament—even though we know he is the same God. In particular, God's punishment often doesn't fit the sin—at least by our standards. Take Exodus 35:2 for example:
"For six days, work is to be done, but the seventh day shall be your holy day, a day of Sabbath rest to the Lord. Whoever does any work on it is to be put to death."
Seems a little harsh, right?
Here are a few things to consider when you come across passages like that. These thoughts aren’t intended to address every verse or answer every question, but they might help you shrink that gap between your perception of Old Testament God vs. New Testament God.
1. The one who is offended matters.
A seminary professor of mine (Dr. James Allman, I believe), made a great observation: If I spit on a friend’s head, there would be consequences—he’d be upset, think I was strange, or we might argue about it. But if I did the same thing to a police officer, the consequences would be more extreme. I'd probably lose my freedom for a while.
The status of the offended party dictates how offensive an act is—even more than the act itself sometimes. Any time God gave Israel a law, if the Israelites broke that law, God was the offended party. Any offense against God can justifiably result in major consequences. The people of ancient Israel were fully aware of this principle.
2. Our lens is not their lens.
We read biblical accounts through a modern lens. We can’t help it. We can't accurately see the world through the culture of ancient Israel. And without a doubt, their culture had different values than ours.
Think of it this way: if an ancient Israelite peeked in on our culture and saw someone walking his dog, he'd think, Why is this lowly, filthy, possibly dangerous animal leading a human being around on a piece of twine? And why is this person making himself unclean by picking up the animal’s waste?!
Without cultural clarity, that’s a fair question.
Even in our information-heavy age, many cultural idiosyncrasies aren't documented—you just know them because you live inside the culture. In fact, they can be so invisible to you that you may assume they're universally true for all people throughout history. But that's not the case.
The same is true in reverse. The Old Testament is linked to the culture of ancient Israel. It includes many of that culture's assumptions. And it doesn't necessary explain those assumptions for modern readers.
3. You’re reading a document that is thousands of years old.
The documents that made up the Old Testament were written in a style and format that people at the time were accustomed to. While some things may seem offensive to us, readers at that time may have understood a particular account to have a dose of hyperbole. That is, it’s plausible that some of the laws were written with extreme wording to demonstrate a point, but the actual punishments weren't carried out at all times.
Also, we do not have the complete listing of laws given to ancient Israel, so our context for the laws we have is likely incomplete.
4. Any sense of unfairness pales in comparison to the unfairness in the New Testament.
Jesus did nothing wrong, but was killed because of the sins others committed. If that's not the ultimate example of unfairness, I'm not sure what is. No example in the Old Testament demonstrates such a disparity between a person’s actions and his punishment.
In the Old Testament, God demonstrated that his status as all-knowing, all-present, all-powerful Creator of everything demands an immense payment for any offense (sin) against him. In the New Testament, God demonstrated that his love for his creation moved him to take that payment in the form of his perfect Son's death and resurrection on behalf of sinful people. In both halves of the story, God is the same God.