What About the Violence in the Old Testament?
Many people make a distinction between the God of the Old Testament, described as vengeful and violent, and the God of the New Testament who is loving and kind. They question how the God of the Old Testament who ordered the extermination of an entire civilization could be the same God portrayed in the New Testament who forgives sin and offers life to the perishing. Can these two extremes be reconciled?
The solution lies in the purposes of God and what He is trying to accomplish. By looking at His goals, you can begin to understand His methods.
When this objection is raised, it typically points to the passage in Deuteronomy 20 where God commanded the Israelites to kill every man, woman, and child among six people groups (the Hittites, Amorites, Canaanites, Perizzites, Hivites and Jebusites). Such a command is disturbing because it offends our moral sensibilities. Ironic, considering that the moral sensibilities of Western society have been shaped by the Christian Bible more than anything else.
How can Christians reconcile these two extremes without compromising their view of Scripture? Is there a rational, reasonable explanation? To understand how God could have issued such an order, it is important to place it in context.
God gave less extreme instructions for dealing with other nations.
Earlier in the same chapter, the Israelites were instructed to offer peace terms to those they encountered, seeking to peacefully coexist. This was certainly preferable to war. In dealing with the Hittites, Amorites, Canaanites, Perizzites, Hivites and Jebusites, however, God ordered extreme measures. Why? Because of the pervasive wickedness in those societies. Among those groups, the men, women, and children participated in abominations such as child sacrifice, sorcery, idolatry, incest, rape, sodomy, and murder. In Deuteronomy 20:18, God described what would happen if any survivors remained. “They will teach you to follow all the detestable things they do in worshiping their gods, and you will sin against the Lord your God.”
God was not quick to give the extermination order.
As the Bible describes, God held back for at least four centuries as these communities descended into idol worship, bestiality, and child sacrifice. They were not innocent victims. As early as the time of Abraham, God expressed displeasure at the iniquity of the Amorites (Genesis 15). At that time, though, God declared that they were not evil enough for Him to respond with drastic measures. Instead, He waited to give them time to turn from their wickedness. When they did not, judgment was pronounced.
The holiness of God demands that evil be punished.
While God in His love chose to delay judgment, there came a time when justice had to be served. A righteous God cannot permit evil to go unpunished indefinitely. God is loving, yes, but it would be a mistake to overemphasize His love at the expense of His holiness. God will not turn a blind eye to evil; He is a compassionate yet righteous Judge.
God knew of the future trouble these tribes would cause the Israelites.
Though God ordered the extermination of entire tribes, the Israelites did not fully obey God’s instruction. Instead, they left survivors. As a result, their descendants were a thorn in the side of the Israelites for centuries to follow. They attacked the Israelites, suppressed them, deceived them, and led them toward idol worship and away from God. It would appear that, for the sake of the Israelite community, God might have had good reason to issue His order after all.
God did not prefer violence, but He used it when necessary to accomplish His purposes.
Was God’s order to exterminate these tribes extreme? It certainly was. Was it also necessary? That is the real question. God did not hate the Canaanites or the other tribes, nor did He enjoy giving the order for them to be exterminated. Yet it was necessary to accomplish His greater purpose.
What was that purpose? To prepare the people of Israel to be the channel through which He would bring salvation to the world. To that end, He gave instructions that would maintain the integrity and purity of the Israelite nation.
This is consistent with our modern view of warfare. It is never preferred, but there are times when it becomes necessary. Greater purposes may make war unavoidable.
To say that God was evil in what He told the Israelites to do, you have to prove that He did not have good reason to do so. God sees the big picture along with every possible ramification, and so He operates accordingly. He knows the outcome of every action and every choice. By understanding this, you can begin to see that God may have had good cause to give the orders He gave.
So, does this validate other occurrences of mass violence in the name of God throughout history? No, because God’s purposes are different now than they were in Old Testament times. Jesus has already come into the world to bring a message of hope and salvation—not only for a select nation but for all people everywhere. Rather than preserving the Israelite people, God’s intent is now for Christ-followers to take His message to the world.
The limitations God set on seeking personal justice pointed the way toward forgiveness and grace.
God set limits that did not previously exist. For example, the command of “life for life, eye for eye, tooth for tooth, hand for hand, foot for foot” (Deuteronomy 21:19) may sound vengeful by modern standards, but it came at a time when there was no justice system like we have today. Instead, people would dole out their own brand of justice, often going to extremes. A relatively minor infraction could lead to the taking of a life.
Within this historical context, God instituted a proportional justice system. It was not the endgame; it was just a step in the right direction. God’s call for restraint in seeking revenge eventually pointed the way toward extending forgiveness and turning the other cheek.
Evaluating the events of the ancient world by today’s standards is presumptuous. Actions deemed horrific now might have been necessary then. From examining the context of God’s instruction to exterminate the Hittites, Amorites, Canaanites, Perizzites, Hivites and Jebusites, it seems that this was a last but necessary resort. That reality may not fully satisfy our sense of injustice—particularly because it stirs an emotional response—but it does show that God may have had just cause.