After months of wrestling with what all the violence in the Old Testament means for my decades-long belief in a loving God, I’ve come to a conclusion that I can
(sort of) live with.
So without further ado, let’s dive into the murky waters of the ancient past and try to make sense of this thorny issue.
If you’re in any doubt about the violence of the Old Testament, please go and read it.
Or read my blog posts on the Old Testament God (1, 2 and 3) for a scintillating summary. The thorny question is, how can one reconcile the character of the God of the New Testament (a personal, Father-God who goes to extraordinary lengths to make it possible to enter into relationship with all humans who will have faith in Him) with the capricious, jealous and fearsomely violent God of the Old Testament?
Firstly, I’ve discovered that this is a false dichotomy. As Rob Bell puts it in his new book, “What is the Bible?” many people think that there’s no death and destruction in the New Testament, but this is not true. Have you read the book of Revelation recently? Also, it was Jesus who first introduced the idea of Hell, and he warns his disciples that they shouldn’t fear what people can do to us here on this earth, but rather fear God who can do far, far worse. Persecution on earth is short-lived; burning in hell is forever. That’s plenty of violence, right there in the New Testament. (I’ll explore the question of Hell in a future post.) And conversely, there are a lot of references and examples in the Old Testament of the love, grace and mercy of God. So it’s important right at the outset to get rid of simplistic categories.
Still, in the Old Testament, God-ordained violence seems to be ever-present. Both on a national level (“Those pesky Canaanites are taking up space in the Promised Land – go and kill all of them and take possession of what is rightfully yours”) and on a domestic level (witness the many instructions to stone people who were disobeying the law).
As Peter Enns says in his very readable book “The Bible Tells Me So: Why defending Scripture has made us unable to read it”:
“It’s hard to appeal to the God of the Bible to condemn genocide today when the God of the Bible commanded genocide yesterday. This is what we call a theological problem. And it’s a big one, not only because of the whole Canaanite business, but because violence seems to be God’s preferred method of conflict resolution.”
As a modern day believer, this leaves a distinctly bad taste in one’s mouth.
But this is precisely the point. As modern-day readers, we find it incredibly difficult, almost impossible, to understand the context in which the Old Testament was written. What we often forget (and this is particularly true of Christians who believe in the inerrancy of the Bible) is that the library of books which make up the Bible were written by real people like you and I, who lived in real times and places, and just like us, interpreted and wrote their history as they understood it.
In the ancient world, violence was necessary for survival. People were organized into tribes, and your tribe was your everything. Here’s Rob Bell again, helping us understand the world before democracy, dishwashers and diapers:
Tribes had gods and goddesses, forces they followed and worshipped who, they believed, protected and guided them. So when you went into battle against another tribe— usually for land or access to resources or wealth— you were doing battle with them, but at the same time your god was confronting their god. (That’s what’s going on in the David-and-Goliath story.) And when you won, you wiped them
out and took all their stuff. Why? Because what if you left some of the men alive, and then later they banded together— maybe the son of the king you killed was their leader— and they came to get their revenge? You couldn’t risk it. Or maybe you killed the men but took the women for yourselves. And the donkeys, and whatever else you wanted. Those were called the spoils of war. There were rules about how this worked, because tribes had been doing it this way for a long time. Brutal? Yes. Violent? Yes. Primitive? Yes. Barbaric? Yes. Your tribal identity wasn’t just about your bloodline and your gods— it was also about safety. The world was extremely dangerous, and without the protection of a tribe, you could easily find yourself enslaved or worse by another tribe. This was not like picking a political party or religious affiliation in our world— in that world at that time your survival was at stake. When you read those Old Testament stories about So-and-So accumulating so many fighting men and a certain number of swords or horses or camels or making an alliance with King So-and-So, this wasn’t a hobby. This was life or death. Kill or be killed. And no matter how many battles you’d fought and won, you were always one battle away from the enemy crushing you and wiping out your entire tribe, or killing some of you and taking the rest back to be assimilated into the conqueror’s tribe.
Sound familiar? That’s the Old Testament world, right there. So when the writers of Genesis, Exodus, Judges etc sat down to write the stories of their people, which had been passed down orally for generations, this is how they interpreted those events. Their God instructed them to “Go forth and conquer” and promised them that he was on their side. He was bigger and stronger than the other gods, and this was evident when they were victorious. They went to great lengths to brag about Yahweh’s power and strength so that other nations would know that their God was fearsome and shouldn’t be trifled with. When they were beaten, this was because their God was angry with them because they hadn’t been obeying his law.
I don’t interpret the world in this way anymore, and that’s why the Old Testament seems to portray a vastly different God to the one I believed in.
This, in a nutshell, is how I have started making sense of the Old Testament portrayal of God. PHEW, that was a bumpy ride! Now I need a strong cup of coffee.
But wait, what?! Let’s backtrack a little. This way of understanding the Old Testament helps me make sense of one thorny theological problem, but it raises a new one. If we believe the Bible is the inerrant word of God, it’s deeply uncomfortable to think that it was written by real people, in real places, with a world-view very different from ours.
A world-view that doesn’t always stand up to the light of reason or common sense as we see it. This would make the Bible a collection of books written in the normal way, and not in essence written by God.