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Why does the God of the Old Testament appear so violent?

bibleI've been asked to write brief answers to six thorny questions:

Hasn't science disproved God?

Is God homophobic?

Why does God appear so violent in the Old Testament?

Are the gospel accounts trustworthy?

Why isn't God more obvious?

Why has the Church caused so much pain?

I've got to keep these under 600 words. I'd love if you could help. What have I missed? What have I got wrong?


Why does God appear so violent in the Old Testament?

Confronting the Caricatures

According to the Apostles, the Old Testament is all about “the good news of peace through Jesus Christ” while the New Testament concerns Christ, “the Judge of the living and the dead” (Acts 10:36-43). Grace in the Old, Judgement in the New! What unites the Scriptures is Christ Himself.

John tells us Christ was there “in the beginning” (1:1-18). Therefore Christ was the One Moses, Abraham and Isaiah saw and wrote about (5:37-47; 8:56-58; 12:37-41). The problems we might have with “the God of the Old Testament” we have with Jesus.

Having said this...

The Times Have Changed

When Jesus came in the flesh He fulfilled and ended the temporary structures of the Old Testament, in particular the Temple with its priests and sacrifices and the theocratic nation with its kings and armies. Instead Jesus relentlessly urges forgiveness and non-violence (see Matthew 5:38-48; 26:52-54; Luke 6:27-36; John 18:36).

So here’s our challenge: Jesus tells us to put down our swords and to pick up His book. Yet in His book (the Old Testament) we read of several holy wars. What to  think?

Let’s examine the central act of violence brought up in these discussions – the conquest of the promised land, commanded in Deuteronomy, fulfilled in Joshua. (For further reading see Paul Copan’s Is God a Moral Monster?)

The Conquest of Canaan

For 400 years Canaanite cultures were involved in child-burning and other grotesque evils (Genesis 15:13-16; cf “Molech”, Lev 18:21). The Lord gave them centuries to repent of it – considerably longer than any other “just war” ever launched. He then, through His people, visited them with a one off, unrepeatable judgement. It had nothing to do with race – this was not genocide. Later on, when the Israelites were also guilty of such sins, they too were judged.

Every Canaanite who ever sought mercy from the Israelites was spared (see Joshua 2&9). Certainly, prior to the conquest, God speaks the language of total destruction (Deut 20:16-18). Yet Copan argues that this was well understood in the day as militaristic hyperbole. The language of “driving out” precedes and predominates over language of “wiping out” (Deut 7:17-24; 9:1-6). And when Joshua sums up his achievements, he considers that he’s done what Moses had commanded – this, in spite of the fact the Canaanites were not fully driven out, let alone wiped out. (see Joshua 23-24; Judges 1)

Judgement and Grace

Having said this, these stories still shock. God is not a Rotarian. There is blood and fire to this Righteous Judge – in both Testaments. But remember three things:

First, we often complain that God should do more about evil in this world. When He gives us this one-off, unrepeatable pre-figurement of His righteous judgement, we cannot then complain at His intervention!

Second, the Bible makes it clear we are all moral and spiritual Canaanites. We all need the mercy shown to Rahab in Joshua 2. This is what Jesus provides, absorbing the fire and justice on the cross and providing us with refuge.

Third, in Jesus we are brought into a realm beyond judgement – a realm of cheek-turning, enemy-forgiving love (Colossians 1:13-14). Thus the New Testament views these ancient wars as types of our own campaign of peace (2 Corinthians 10:1-5; Ephesians 6:10-20). ‘Christian violence’ is a contradiction in terms.

In the end, the problem of violence does not lie in millennia old Hebrew wars but in our hearts. The solution is not to reject Jesus or His book. The only answer is Jesus Himself – the Judge who became our Refuge.

6 thoughts on “Why does the God of the Old Testament appear so violent?

  1. Cal

    Another thing to consider is given that in the Law and Prophets, and especially in the Gospels and Epistles, it is said that everything that happened to Israel is a type to prefigure the reality, this must include the conquest. I appreciate some of Copan's work (I own the book you pull from), it's not particularly helpful. The conversation ends up being bogged down by questions about the parameters of the conquest instead of the meatier question of what it means.

    My point is retooling a phrase from Hebrews: the bronze sword or chariot never destroyed wickedness. That victory could only be won on the cross, which the conquest prefigures, where Jesus triumphed over the powers. Consider that the Israelites one time only won a battle as long as Moses could keep his arms open. There's even Paul's metaphors about being a soldier or wearing "armor".

    It's not exhaustive or explains everything, but its a good step forward to understanding this narrative. As Tertullian said: Jesus(Joshua) is our Imperator. He leads the bloodless army that conquers the darkness by forgiveness.


  2. Glen

    Thank you Anselm, helpful links.
    And thanks Cal, yes I might save some words on the Copan stuff and add a bit on typology.

  3. Mayor Edun

    Also, judgement in the old testament and in the new testament shows the heart of a Father. As God's people matured the wrath and the watch of the father changes. Just as a father will watch every move of his 1 year old child and make sure the child follows a regime and as the child gets older the regime and discipline changes from an outward to an inward form of remorse. Just like infants the people of God lacked maturity in the old testament so there was need for discipline which sometimes came in the form of war and conquest, either to or by God's people. Now with the new covenant and with Grace we are no longer like babes in need of milk our ignorant heart of stone is no more and we have a heart of flesh so God deals with us in a different way. Same God, same Father. Still and forever will be the same, but His methods have changed not His principles

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