Thing #4 – God Commanding Violence in the Old Testament
This one was beyond embarrassing. This issue calls into question the biblical claim that God is loving and good.
Of course, as a kid I grew up with lovey-dovey Christianity, believing that Jesus was all about loving everybody. But at the secular art college where I studied painting, my seasoned, cynical, liberal arts professors reeeelly pressed this point of the supposed “two different Gods” presented in the Bible – the Old Testament God of vengeance vs the New Testament God of love. And the Old Testament God was not merely passive-aggressive, or theoretically OK with violence. At times He specifically commanded Israel to mercilessly slaughter even the women, children, and animals of Israel’s enemies Furthermore, Israel was initially the aggressor, with “God’s blessing,” wiping out people groups with the aim of occupying their land. On one hand, the OT presents the idea that YHWH is unique, and above all other gods, but His commands to Israel to slaughter her enemies suggests that He is no different from any other war-like, barbaric, us-vs-them god.
Furthermore, I hope we can all agree that “God wants me to kill these people” is horrible foreign policy for our world, yet we still have precisely this kind of reasoning guiding militant Islam today. How can Bible lovers like myself say this thinking was OK for ancient Israel but not for contemporary Islam?
In light of Israel’s role in the world as stated in the Bible, I see three reasons for God commanding violence:
1 – The “J”-word
If God conceived and created all of life, then He has ultimate authority, and we are accountable to Him. The Bible portrays all of humanity as lost and dying. With Abraham, God established the nation of Israel and explicitly stated that Israel’s role in the world was to be a blessing to all the families of the earth (Gen 12:3; 18:18; 22:18; 26:4; 28:14.) He promised a land to Abraham’s descendants at this time. Later, under Moses, God delivered His Torah (Law) to serve as a guide to His “witness people” and a witness to the surrounding nations (Deut 4:7,8.)
So…how does killing off the surrounding nations constitute being a light and a blessing?
Initially, the Torah states that God was using Israel as an instrument of His judgment against the inhabitants of the Promised Land. It says He withheld judgment against those inhabitants for 400 years “until their iniquity was complete” (Gen 15:15,16.) We are told the nature of their iniquity: rampant violence and murder, thievery, rape, prostitution, incest, bestiality, and child abuse including routine child burning in sacrifice to their false gods (Lev ch 18, specifically v 24, 25.) This describes a society, most of the inhabitants of which would be imprisoned or on death row in our legal system. This was a time before there was such a thing as spiritual re-birth, or even 12-step programs. The picture is of a society openly practicing evil (which always entails harming others,) liking it that way, and passing it on to their children. For example the story of Sodom says that the men of the city, “both young and old, to the last man” came out to gang rape Lot’s guests.
Justice is part of goodness and love. It is not good or loving to any party to let a playground bully have his way everyday with the other children on the playground. Good authority must step in to keep evil in check. It must also be remembered that Israel herself was not exempt from judgment. God promised to use the nations to visit the same judgment upon Israel should she turn from God’s covenant, as eventually happened.
If the idea of God using Israel to judge the surrounding nations is objectionable to you, I would sincerely like to hear your ideas as to what you think God should have done instead to keep violence and evil in check. (Call out the UN Peacekeeping Force?) Even today, the world’s peace loving and “enlightened” nations are sometimes forced to revert to warfare in order to keep greater evils in check. Ultimately the spiritually corrupt state of the human condition is the reason God sent a Savior. In part, the Torah was designed as a temporal agent to set a reasonable standard for Israel and the nations until the Messiah’s coming (Gal 3:23-25.) The whole batch of humanity was lost, and pretty much rotting from the inside out.
2 – Extreme intervention
Many Bible critics seem to assume that if God commands something anywhere in the Bible, then He must think it is categorically right and good. But we can easily see that this is not the case, neither in the Bible nor in the rest of life. For example when my children were toddlers, I absolutely did not allow them to cross the street by themselves. Now that they are grown, I expect them to.
Similarly, one can’t isolate a biblical command of God and claim that it represents God’s perfect ideal when the whole of the Bible claims that it does not. The Bible’s linear, progressive, unfolding revelation is consistent both with itself and with the world we know. If a skeptic’s argument ignores the whole, he forfeits his right to argue against the legitimacy of the Bible. His argument is simply reduced to “I really don’t like that part of the Bible.” To which I might reply, “I’m with you bro. I don’t like that part either. And apparently God didn’t like it either, seeing as He sent a Messiah.”
A benevolent doctor may prescribe chemotherapy for a cancer patient, even though chemo would be a terrible prescription for a healthy, cancer-free person. The benevolent doctor may even need to amputate a limb in order to save the larger body, though this would appear unspeakably cruel to an uninformed onlooker. However, it would be wrong to call the character of the doctor into question unless he goes around sadistically cutting limbs off of healthily functioning people.
Perhaps God viewed the cutting off of the depraved nations inhabiting the promised land as an amputation; an intervention necessary to spare the larger body of the human race, until such time as something better – true healing and guidance – could be brought into play. The cancer of sin threatened to bring judgment down upon all of humanity again, as with Noah’s flood. Eventually, God’s Messiah would come to deal with the sin issue once and for all. God would judge sin in the Messiah, and introduce the possibility of spiritual rebirth to humanity.
The Bible states that God is not categorically happy with slaughtering evil people. Several times He states that this is not His first choice: “As I live, says the Lord God, I have no pleasure in the death of the wicked, but that the wicked should turn from his way and live…” (Ezek 33:11, see also 18:23 & 32.)
3 – Prefiguring better realities
Now comes a surprise. In a previous post I wrote of God’s vision for Jewish-gentile unity, and how the coming of the Messiah has made this possible. The apostle Paul writes of this unity in an often-overlooked passage in his letter to the Romans, chapter 15:8-12. Here he quotes prophetic passages from Moses, King David, and the prophets to make his case:
“For I tell you that Christ became a servant to the circumcised [the Jews] to show God’s truthfulness, in order to confirm the promises given to the patriarchs, and in order that the gentiles might glorify God for His mercy. As it is written,
‘Therefore I will praise thee among the gentiles, and sing to thy name’; [David – Ps 18:49]
And again it is said, ‘Rejoice, O gentiles, with his people’; [Moses – Deut 32:43]
And again, ‘Praise the Lord all gentiles, and let all the people praise Him’; [David – Ps 117:1]
And further Isaiah says, ‘The root of Jesse shall come, He who rises to rule the gentiles; in Him shall the gentiles hope.’” [Isaiah – 11:10]
Don’t these Old Testament quotations sound nice? They’re not. In what appears to be a feat of dishonest interpretive gymnastics, Paul cites one of the bloodiest Psalms of David as a prophetic statement on Jewish-gentile unity! Psalm 18:49 is, in fact, David thanking God for giving him victory over his gentile enemies. In other words, he killed them. This Psalm contains statements such as,
“I pursued my enemies and overtook them; and did not turn back till they were consumed. I thrust them through so that they were not able to rise; they fell under my feet…” and, “…I beat them fine as dust before the wind; I cast them out like the mire of the streets.” (v 37, 38, & 42)
Wow. What possible justification could Paul have for using the warrior-king’s exultations to speak of unity and friendship with the nations?
Well…exactly the same justification that he had to interpret every other aspect of the Mosaic Covenant as a foreshadowing of the new and better spiritual realities that arrived with the Messiah’s New Covenant. From top to bottom, every aspect of the Torah and the prophets has been (or will be) fulfilled in the Messiah, and is now translated into spiritual terms, according to the teaching of Jesus and His apostles. This is not some interpretive sleight of hand. This IS what all the Torah and the prophets pointed to and looked forward to. This is what all of creation and its Creator have been waiting for. It’s the historic coming of salvation and the kingdom of God, entering into our present, corrupt age. It comes with an invitation, with the aim of eventually unifying all things (Eph 1:9,10.)
Specifically, New Covenant teaching acknowledges a warfare, but says we no longer fight against flesh and blood. Neither are our armor and weaponry material (Eph 6:11-17.) We still invade nations on behalf of a kingdom, but we bring a message of love and salvation, never a sword. We do hope to see the inhabitants of all nations individually surrender to Israel’s God, but not as prisoners. We surrender to the Lordship of Jesus, becoming spiritual sons and daughters of our Creator, and co-heirs with believing Israel.
In keeping with this radical New Covenant way of thinking, Jesus says things like, “You have heard that it was said, ‘You shall love your neighbor and hate your enemy.’ But I say to you, Love your enemies…” (Mt 5:43,44.) And we have apostolic teaching agreeing, “For though we walk in the flesh, we are not waging war according to the flesh. For the weapons of our warfare are not of the flesh but have divine power to destroy strongholds. We destroy arguments and every lofty opinion raised against the knowledge of God…” (2 Cor 10:3-5.)
I don’t believe that King David had the slightest inkling that what He was writing had anything to do with an eventual New Covenant wherein God’s people would love their enemies. Nor did Moses have a clue that the feasts of Israel in Leviticus had anything to do with prefiguring the work of a Messiah who would come two millennia later. These prophets were immersed in the dispensation of the Old Covenant under which they lived, and what they wrote was in complete fidelity with that context. The fact that there is a precise, uncanny correspondence between the Old and New Covenants over a period of several millennia is due only to the genius of God.
Clearly, Mohammad also had no inkling of these things when he founded Islam, 600 years after Jesus established His New Covenant. Despite the Koran’s repeated claims that it supports the Gospels, it clearly does not. In fact the Koran contradicts all that Jesus accomplished, reverting back to physical terms and conditions similar to those of the old Mosaic Covenant, including the recognition and slaughter of Islam’s human enemies. Islam’s prophet was a warrior. There is no new covenant in the Koran.
In the teaching of Jesus and His apostles we see a revolutionary, seismic change that far transcends the time in which it was written. Specifically, in the New Covenant of Jesus we see the elimination of ethnic differences (no Jew or Greek,) status and economic differences (no slave or free,) and gender differences (no male or female.) Freaking revolutionary.
“For in Christ Jesus you are all sons of God through faith. For as many of you as were baptized into Christ have put on Christ. There is neither Jew nor Greek, there is neither slave nor free, there is no male and female; for you are all one in Christ Jesus…” (Gal 3:27-28; also Col 3:9-11.)
(Thanks to Pastor Jonathan Williams for first pointing out the Romans 15 passage to me.)