First-time readers of the Old Testament (and many of us who have known the stories for a long time) express concern about the violence in the Old Testament and especially the God who commands it. How can we love or trust a God who seems so mean and angry and vengeful?
It’s a fair question and one that’s already come up in the group I lead on Tuesday nights; they’re reading the “E100,” many for the first time. It’s also likely to come up among those who watch “The Bible” miniseries that started Sunday night—already in episode one we had children dying, armies drowning, and entire cities being destroyed.
Here are some thoughts I put together for my group a few weeks ago, some my own and some pulled from commentaries and other sources. I’m not a scholar, although a few of you who read this are, so feel free to add your own insights or correct mine. Hopefully this can be a helpful starter resource that addresses at least a few questions. I’ll leave it to others to explain why everyone in the History Channel’s version spoke with British accents and why angels looked like the Ghost of Christmas Future.
The first, maybe best thing I can say is just to keep reading. The more you read about God’s character, in all of the ways the Bible reveals it, the more you understand who He is and what He does.
Second, we have to understand what is meant by God’s holiness. This is a word we hear sometimes at church but may not think about much. It comes from a word meaning “to separate or cut off.” God is separate, or cut off, from everything that is sinful and evil.
During the Old Testament period, God often emphasized His holiness to Israel.
Then he [the Lord] said, “Come no closer! Remove the sandals from your feet, for the place on which you are standing is holy ground.” He said further, “I am the God of your father, the God of Abraham, the God of Isaac, and the God of Jacob.” And Moses hid his face, for he was afraid to look at God” (Exodus 3:5,6).
The nation of Israel was also to be holy, or set apart, because God is holy.
You are to be holy to me because I, the LORD, am holy, and I have set you apart from the nations to be my own (Leviticus 20:26).
God cannot tolerate sin or evil in His presence. He can’t even look at it. However, at the same time He has chosen the Israelites to be His people and to be an example and a witness to the world. He brought them out of Egypt so He could be with them and be their king. But they are far from holy. So what is the solution?
Remember, the Israelites had been in Egypt for 400 years; although they were now free, they were still slaves to an Egyptian way of thinking. They were surrounded by cultures with laws far harsher than their own and with far worse behavior. They also believed in many other tribal gods.
So when God wants these people to be His, He gives them commands to follow. He introduces the sacrificial system of animals so they can seek forgiveness for their sin. He even tells them to create a tabernacle so they can offer these sacrifices and worship Him, and so that He can be with them. (Read the end of Exodus for more on that if you want.)
So there’s the holiness of God with His people. Fine. But why does that mean other people like Egyptians or neighboring armies have to die?
One of the biggest reasons is justice. The Israelite army battles with many groups like the Canaanites and Amalekites. The Canaanites participated in incest, bestiality, and child sacrifice. The Amalekites would often heat up an idol like Molech with fire until it was glowing, place their newborn babies on the arms of the idol, and watch them burn to death. At other times they killed disabled, weak, and elderly people without so much as a second thought.
And their mission was to destroy Israel. In other words, to commit genocide. Given God’s holy standard, such behavior seems to cry out to God for judgment, but even in this situation His patience extended for hundreds of years before He ordered the destruction of these nations. The same is true for Egypt, whose leaders had systematically killed Israelite babies by throwing them, still alive, into the Nile river; even they were given multiple opportunities to escape judgment before God acted.
When he did order the Israelites to attack one of these groups, it was basically a form of corporate capital punishment on an evil culture. This was not some type of random violence against innocent people. Many times the nations were warned ahead of time and had the chance to vacate the land instead of fighting. Also, not every battle recorded in the Old Testament was the result of Israelite aggression; several scholars have noted that all of the battles approved by God after the time of Joshua were defensive in nature. In addition, God’s judgment on Canaan involved exceptions for those who were willing to turn to Him (for example, Rahab and her family—read Joshua chapter 2 for this one).
Finally, we have to remember the rest of the story. (I mean it, keep reading!) The sacrificial system and the tabernacle and the laws for holiness were never enough to truly let God’s people be in relationship with Him. They kept messing up and a permanent solution was needed. And this is why Jesus came—to be a perfect, once-and-done sacrifice that meant now we can be in God’s “presence” and pray directly to Him and be as close to Him as we want. God still cannot tolerate sin, including our sin, but when He looks at us now He sees Jesus. Jesus is our “mediator,” which we’ll read about in the New Testament.
In other words, the same God who judged the Canaanites for their wickedness came to Earth to die a barbaric death of His own for the sins of the world.
We are so saturated with New Testament grace that sometimes we forget what it cost. The Old Testament shocks us. It was a brutal time, but it is not two different Gods. He dealt with people and their sin in more physical ways in the Old Testament, and in the New Testament he talks more on a spiritual level (for example, “repent or perish” in Luke 13:3). But either way, He is a holy God who created everything and then came up with a plan to save us when we messed it up. Keep reading the Old Testament with this perspective.