Why the Violence in the Old Testament?
By: Pastor Brian Chilton
Catch the audio broadcast that coincides with this issue by clicking here.
The recent epic miniseries The Bible accomplished exactly what Roma Downey, the producer of the mini-series, set for the series to do; get people talking about the Bible. Many people had various problems with the mini-series. For instance, the angels at Sodom and Gomorrah probably were not dressed like ninjas. The sayings of Jesus in the wilderness wanderings stretched what the actual Jesus said. Nonetheless, the series remained true to the Bible overall.
One of the great surprises to many of our congregants in the mini-series was the violence of the Old Testament times (otherwise called the Hebrew Bible). One faithful church member said, “I have been going to Sunday school many years. I never knew that there was so much violence in the Bible!” So, this brings us to a difficult question. Why is there so much violence in the Bible? This question is a difficult one because it is loaded with a variety of other questions.
To answer why there is so much violence in the Old Testament, it must be asked what is really being asked. Four questions arise from this one. These four questions will be the basis for our article today and we will bring it all together in our conclusion. The four questions are: why did God give the Israelites land (question of conquest); why did God allow for violence to be used against opposing nations; was God only behind one nation; and was God angry and ornery in the Old Testament? First, why did God allow the Israelites to overtake other lands?
Why Did God give the Israelites Land?
“When the Lord your God brings you into the land where you are entering to possess it, and clears away many nations before you, the Hittites and the Girgashites and the Amorites and the Canaanites and the Perizzites and the Hivites and the Jebusites, seven nations greater and stronger than you,
2 and when the Lord your God delivers them before you and you defeat them, then you shall utterly destroy them. You shall make no covenant with them and show no favor to them.
3 “Furthermore, you shall not intermarry with them; you shall not give your daughters to their sons, nor shall you take their daughters for your sons.
4 “For they will turn your sons away from following Me to serve other gods; then the anger of the Lord will be kindled against you and He will quickly destroy you.
5 “But thus you shall do to them: you shall tear down their altars, and smash their sacred pillars, and hew down their Asherim, and burn their graven images with fire.
6 “For you are a holy people to the Lord your God; the Lord your God has chosen you to be a people for His own possession out of all the peoples who are on the face of the earth.
7 “The Lord did not set His love on you nor choose you because you were more in number than any of the peoples, for you were the fewest of all peoples,
8 but because the Lord loved you and kept the oath which He swore to your forefathers, the Lord brought you out by a mighty hand and redeemed you from the house of slavery, from the hand of Pharaoh king of Egypt.”
The text above will be the primary text for this article. Beginning with verse 6, it would appear that God loves only the Israelite nation and no one else. But is this true? Is God a racist? Well, actually no. God had a covenant with Israel, but had a love for all nations. We will examine this in further detail in our third question. So, why did God give the Israelites land? God gave the Israelites land in ancient times for several reasons.
First, God gave Israelites the land because they had no land in which to dwell. They were in the wilderness but the wilderness was not a hospitable place. They could not grow and develop as a people in the desert. They needed a place in which they could flourish. The other people who had inhabited the lands that were given to the Israelites in ancient times were given other lands that were habitable, too. For all intent and purposes, the people of Israel had been rescued from Egypt but were homeless. So, why wouldn’t God give the people with which He had formed a covenant land? Otherwise, it would be like an employer hiring a worker and giving the worker no work place, no materials and resources, and no money. What kind of employer would that be?
Second, Israel would be the nation that would bring forth God’s word. God spoke through prophets, priests, kings, and later apostles to bring forth His word to the world. It was important that the people were established. Before someone will listen to spiritual things, they must first be satisfied physically.
Lastly, the Messiah of the world would come through this nation: Jesus Christ. Jesus would be the redeemer of all people. He would solve the sin problem. This shows God’s love for all people. So, remember, there is no partiality with God. God loves the Arab as much as He loves the Jew…and vice versa. God loves the Chinese person as much as He loves the American…and vice versa. God loves dark-skinned people as much as He loves light-skinned people…and vice versa. As the children’s hymn says, “Red, yellow, black, and white…they are precious in His sight…Jesus loves the little children of the world” (from “Jesus Loves the Little Children”). If this is so, then why did God allow violence to be used?
Why did God Allow for Violence against Other Nations?
If God loves all people, why did God allow and even order for violence to be used against neighboring tribes and nations? Well think about it. Do you really think that the brutal Canaanites would have listened to Joshua and his armies if they walked up to them and said, “We don’t want to fight you, but God told us that this land is ours. So if you don’t mind, get out and let us live here…please.” The Canaanites would have cut Joshua into five pieces quicker than you could whistle “Zippety-Do-Dah.” Violence had to be used because, due to sin, that would be the only measure that would work. Sometimes God allows things to happen in ways that He really does not desire to bring a good end. A great example of this principle is found in the cross. God sometimes used violence by other nations to bring judgment.
Habakkuk is a great little book to read concerning God’s judgment of nations. Habakkuk asks God, “Why are You silent when the wicked swallow up those more righteous than they?” It appeared to Habakkuk that God was allowing evil to take place without doing anything about it. God answered Habakkuk, “You will be filled with disgrace rather than honor. Now you yourself drink and expose your own nakedness. The cup in the Lord’s right hand will come around to you, and utter disgrace will come upon your glory.” In other words, God told Habakkuk, “I am bringing judgment by a foreign nation.” There is much more to Habakkuk’s conversation with God. For this article, we simply need to show that God sometimes brings judgment by allowing other nations to invade a particular nation which has fallen into evil. For His people, it may simply be lifting up His hand of protection. Is this wrong?
Some claim that this is wrong on God’s part, but let me ask it this way: was it wrong for the Allies to conquer Hitler and the Nazis? Hitler had killed 11 million people, 6 million of which were Jews. Of course the Allies were justified conquering Hitler for the atrocities which he had committed. Many of the tribes that were conquered, such as the Canaanites, were evil people who were engaged in child sacrifice, bestiality, licentiousness, and all manners of evil. Why would a good God allow such a civilization to go on with no repercussion? The fact that God allowed them to live where they did for as long as He did shows the grace and mercy of God. As far as idolatry, not only were the other nations wrong in their worship, they had committed themselves to regular human sacrifices which were gruesome and horrific. You may say, “Well you Christians claim that Jesus gave Himself on the cross.” Yes, but Jesus went willingly and was God incarnate. Many of the individuals who were sacrificed in these tribes were innocent children who were forced into being sacrifices. Some claim that God seemed to love only Israel. Is this true?
Did God Only Love Israel?
God loves all people, but, as the text posted at the first of the article from Deuteronomy shows, God was engaged in a covenant relationship with Israel. Don’t confuse covenant (an agreement that God has with a person or people) with love. God’s love for all nations can be seen in God’s willingness to bargain with Abraham for the people of Sodom and Gomorrah. If God found 10 righteous people, He promised Abraham that He would not destroy the place. God had compassion on the people, but the people had become so corrupt that He had to rid the world of the evil therein. Think of Jonah and the Ninevites. Nineveh was not a Jewish nation. Yet, God sent His prophet Jonah to speak a message of repentance to Nineveh so that they would be spared from judgment. Nineveh listened and repented of their sins. Yet, another great piece of evidence in Scripture shows that God is not a respecter of persons or nations.
Before Joshua would lead the troops to Jericho, he asked God, “Are you for us or for our adversaries?” The Lord responded, “No; rather I indeed come now as captain of the host of the Lord.” This was unheard of in ancient times. Even today, one group will claim, “God is only for us and no one else.” Another group will claim, “No God is on our side not your!” God is on no one’s side. God is God. He is under no man’s control. God loved the Gentiles every bit as much as He loved the Israelites. Remember that Jesus said, “For God so loved the world, that He gave His only begotten Son, that whoever believes in Him shall not perish, but have eternal life. For God did not send the Son into the world to judge the world, but that the world might be saved through Him.” The difference was not love, but covenant. This plays into the issue of heaven and hell. God loves every person in hell. But, a covenant had to be worked out with people to allow them access to heaven. If a person does not want exist with God, then they choose to live eternally without God…hence “hell.” A lot of people confuse love and covenant. Some also confuse justice with anger. Was God an angry God in the Old Testament?
Was God Angry and Ornery in the Old Testament?
More than once it has been said, “God is ornery and mean in the Old Testament, but is loving and kind in the New Testament.” Some, like the Gnostics, have postulated that two gods must exist…the vengeful Old Testament God and the loving New Testament God. However, a closer examination of the Old Testament will reveal that God is the same God in the Old Testament that He is in the New Testament.
First, look at God’s love and compassion in Hosea. God compares Himself to Hosea who loved his wife Gomer despite her infidelities. God’s love for Israel remained even though Israel had strayed so far from Him. As Hosea writes for God, “It will come about in that day,” declares the Lord, that you will call Me Ishi (husband) and will no longer call Me Baali (master).”
Second, look at the chances that God gave people to get things right. Judgment was a last measure. God gave the people every chance possible to get things right. God did not desire to bring judgment but it was necessary for God to bring judgment due to the rebellion and evil in which the people were engaged. Jeremiah writes for God, “Thus says the Lord, ‘Stand in the court of the Lord’s house, and speak to all the cities of Judah who have come to worship in the Lord’s house all the words that I have commanded you to speak to them. Do not omit a word! ‘Perhaps they will listen and everyone will turn from his evil way, that I may repent of the calamity which I am planning to do to them because of the evil of their deeds.’” Can you not see the heart of God breaking for the people? His loving nature wishes to save and love every one of them. But, his holiness cannot allow the evil of the land to go on. Would the people listen, repent, and change the path that must come? God knew the answer, but it did not make the situation any easier.
Is God a moral monster as some New Atheists suggest? Does the use of violence indicate that God is a violent, malicious Being who wishes to harm all of humanity? A careful reading of the Hebrew Bible (Old Testament) actually shows that God is a loving God. YHWH in the Old Testament is the same Heavenly Father that is mentioned in the New Testament. God is loving, but God is also holy. God will not allow evil to remain on earth. It was necessary for God to give Israel land in order that His word could be produced, His message could be delivered, and ultimately His Messiah could redeem the world. God allowed and sometimes even ordered violent means to bring judgment against evil nations. It was just as good for God to do this as it was for the Allies to stop the evil conducted by Hitler and the Nazis. Most importantly, God loves all people in all times. It is not His will that any should suffer. In the end, God will make all things right. When God judges, God will be just and give a good judgment. The only thing, however, that will give someone access to God’s heaven is to enter into a covenant relationship with God through His Messiah Jesus Christ. Human sin brought violence into the human spectrum. However, God’s actions through Jesus Christ brought peace, love, and joy into the human spectrum. Violence may be a reality now. But, violence will be put to bed by the Prince of Peace one glorious day.
 All Scripture unless otherwise noted comes from the New American Standard Bible: 1995 Update (LaHabra, CA: The Lockman Foundation, 1995), Deuteronomy 7:1–8.