Photo: Flickr.com, Montezuma’s war, Photographer: llpo’s Sojourn
The Old Testament seems full of violence, not just man against man, but violence that God seems to promote and even participate in. This seems so antithetical to the way God seems to be portrayed in the New Testament, there exemplified by Jesus who seemed to focus more on serving and forgiving. How do we make sense of this? I think that there are two issues to be looked at:
1. The initial question comes from the way God initiatiates and commands violence in the Old Testament, particularly against seemingly innocent people, causing many of us to be uncomfortable or confused; how can the God who loves, cares for and nurtures us to the point of dying and suffering for us, be so violent against the people He wants to draw to Himself? Particulary, when the violence seems to be carried out against innocent people, it seems to contradict the sense of fairness and kindness we expect of God.
2. The first question leads to a more fundamental question. How do we reconcile that the God of love and peace in the we are familiar with in the New Testament with the God of wrath and violence we see in the Old Testament – is the nature and character of God the same in both testaments? It is this question we will look at first.
The nature and character of God
One of the first things to do reconcile these two seeming disparate points of view is to be more thorough examination of the revelation of God in both testaments. If we look carefully, we will discover that there is much in common between the two testaments:
The themes of love, grace and mercy run not only through the New Testament but through the Old Testament as well
⦁ Ex 34:6-7, Lord, the compassionate and gracious God, slow to anger, abounding in love and faithfulness, maintaining love to thousands, and forgiving wickedness, rebellion and sin.
⦁ Hos 11:8-9, My heart is changed within me; all my compassion is aroused. I will not carry out my fierce anger nor will I devastate Ephraim again.
⦁ 2 Samuel 24:14 David said to Gad, “I am in deep distress. Let us fall into the hands of the Lord, for his mercy is great; but do not let me fall into human hands
⦁ Psalm 51:1 Have mercy on me, O God, according to your unfailing love; according to your great compassion blot out my transgressions.
⦁ Isaiah 55:7 Let the wicked forsake their ways and the unrighteous their thoughts. Let them turn to the Lord, and he will have mercy on them, and to our God, for he will freely pardon.
⦁ Nehemiah 9:31 But in your great mercy you did not put an end to them or abandon them, for you are a gracious and merciful God.
⦁ Hosea 6:6 For I desire mercy, not sacrifice, and acknowledgment of God rather than burnt offerings.
⦁ Micah 6:8 He has shown you, O mortal, what is good. And what does the Lord require of you? To act justly and to love mercy and to walk humbly with your God.
The themes of justice and wrath run not only through the Old Testament but through the New Testament as well
⦁ Luke 3:7 John said to the crowds coming out to be baptized by him, “You brood of vipers! Who warned you to flee from the coming wrath?
⦁ Matt 10:14-15 If anyone will not welcome you or listen to your words, leave that home or town and shake the dust off your feet. Truly I tell you, it will be more bearable for Sodom and Gomorrah on the day of judgment than for that town.
⦁ Matt 10:34 “Do not suppose that I have come to bring peace to the earth. I did not come to bring peace, but a sword.
⦁ Mark 9:42-48 “If anyone causes one of these little ones—those who believe in me—to stumble, it would be better for them if a large millstone were hung around their neck and they were thrown into the sea. If your hand causes you to stumble, cut it off. It is better for you to enter life maimed than with two hands to go into hell, where the fire never goes out. And if your foot causes you to stumble, cut it off. It is better for you to enter life crippled than to have two feet and be thrown into hell. And if your eye causes you to stumble, pluck it out. It is better for you to enter the kingdom of God with one eye than to have two eyes and be thrown into hell,where “‘the worms that eat them do not die, and the fire is not quenched.’
⦁ Luke 18:7 And will not God bring about justice for his chosen ones, who cry out to him day and night? Will he keep putting them off?
⦁ John 3:36 Whoever believes in the Son has eternal life, but whoever rejects the Son will not see life, for God’s wrath remains on them.
⦁ Romans 9:22 What if God, although choosing to show his wrath and make his power known, bore with great patience the objects of his wrath—prepared for destruction?
Understanding the context of violence
For those of us who are disposed to relate to God as our Father, our Friend, and our Shepherd, we become uncomfortable with the expressions of wrath and violence displayed by God, particularly in the Old Testament. Part of our discomfort is due to our incomplete understanding of God (which we just addressed and partly due to our lack of understanding of the context of the culture in Biblical times.
Violence is found not only in the Old Testament but in the New Testament as well
⦁ Revelation 19:11-21 Heavenly warrior defeats the beast.
⦁ Rev 16:1-21 seven bowls of wrath
⦁ Mark 9:43 If your hand causes you to stumble, cut it off. It is better for you to enter life maimed than with two hands to go into hell, where the fire never goes out.
Malachi 2:16 “The man who hates and divorces his wife,” says the Lord, the God of Israel, “does violence to the one he should protect,” says the Lord Almighty. So be on your guard, and do not be unfaithful. In this verse, divorce is considered an act of violence. How little do we understand what other violence we commit with any of our sins.
Lex tolionus (Code of Hammurabi) – the concept of “eye for an eye and tooth for a tooth” is actually a counter-cultural idea that the MAXIMUM penalty for a transgression should be not greater than the transgression itself
Herem – devotion (to destruction)- The destruction of entire cities was necessary to eliminate the gross sins committed by a city. Part of that elimination of a corrupted culture was so that it wouldn’t contaminate the Israelites (as was proven in the later history of Israel, Deut 20:18) as simply a patient and forbearing God executing his delayed judgement. In the dream where God was informing Abraham of the future (Gen 15:12-16) captivity and release of the nation of his descendants, he also informed Abraham that the time of judgements against the Amalekites had not yet come but would come at the time when Abraham’s descendents would return to the Promised Land.
God gives people up to their sins
- Genesis 18:20 Then the Lord said, “The outcry against Sodom and Gomorrah is so great and their sin so grievous
- Pharoah who hardened his heart and then the Lord further hardened the Pharoah’s heart
Throughout scripture, there is a pattern in how judgement is carried out
- God declares judgement for sin.
- Warning is giving, and the opportunity to repent and avoid judgement is provided.
- God’s judgement is carried through.
The deaths of innocents, the children
- Throughout history, parents have always been the determinators for the welfare of their children – for good or for bad.
- A declaration of war would have typically provided a warning period with opportunity for women, children and the elderly to flee.
- The children killed in these episodes lived in a depraved environment with a miserable outlook for the future (a future that they may not have even experienced as a result of the culture of child sacrifice pursued by their parents).
- Killing by the sword is a more merciful way to die, especially when compared with abandonment and starvation that would have resulted if only the adults were killed.
- Death is not the end, and we can trust God to do what is right, not least of all with children who are not old enough to know any better
The sovereignty of God and other issues
God’s desire for justice for His children – While we need to be careful about how we ascribe our own feelings to God, there is a scriptural basis for our Heavenly Father’s passion for His childrena and a desire to seek justice on their behalf. Consider how an earthly father would respond if he saw his family being maliciously attacked by people who have no shame and whose intentions are purely evil.
God is God and we need to accept His authority not only when we don’t understand it but when His actions cause us consternation. We have had no voice in why He has chosen us to be His children and not chosen others. His thoughts are not our thoughts (Isa 55:8) and we need to have a humble spirit about what we do not understand. Think of the disciples reactions when they were in the boat and saw Jesus command the winds and waves to stop.