The Violent God of the Old Testament

not murder

this i know

Richard Dawkins describes the OT picture of God quite accurately (and exaggerates not): 

The God of the OT is arguably the most unpleasant character in all fiction: jealous and proud of it; a petty, unjust, unforgiving control-freak; a vindictive, bloodthirsty ethnic cleanser; a misogynistic, homophobic, racist, infanticidal, genocidal, filicidal, pestilential, megalomaniacal, sadomasochistic, capriciously malevolent bully.

There are over a thousand references to divine violence in the Jewish scriptures. Some are well known, such as sending various plagues upon the Egyptians, smiting many Israelites for complaining, demanding animal sacrifices, and the drowning of the majority of all living creatures on land.

noahs ark

But others are rarely mentioned, such as sending two bears to maul 42 youths just for calling Elisha a baldy, supposedly inspiring psalmists to write things like “happy is he who takes your little ones and dashes them against the rocks,” tons of rules that, if broken, required you to be put to death, commanding complete genocide of entire peoples, killing 70,000 innocent people merely because David decided to take a census, and many instances of slaying individuals just because they did something God didn’t like, regardless of whether their intentions were good or not.

I don’t listen to excuses such as “God can do whatever he wants” or “whatever God does is just and right.” Nor do I care for any of the attempts to explain away such instances of cruelty as somehow being “good” for people. I understand that sometimes there can be an element of truth to such explanations, but truth be told, if anyone in our modern society did the same things, even if they claimed to be doing them for the good of humanity, no one would for a moment pretend that that’s okay.

bad law

Nevertheless, this is what we find recorded in the scriptures.

So, then, why were these things written down, and what is their function? Are they to be taken as perfectly factually correct stories and straightforward assertions about the divine character itself?

I think these stories serve a purpose and that that purpose is not theological but anthropological. That is, these stories are not there to tell us what God is like but what humanity, apart from knowing God, is like.

Stories like the ones written by the Jews were by no means unique to the people during that time. Ascribing events and commands to gods was considered to be a compliment to them.

When someone got sick, they would say that the gods caused it.

When someone died, they would say that the gods killed them.

When a disaster occurred, they would say that the gods made it happen.

When a people group was successfully wiped out, they would say that the gods told them to and helped them do it.

The gods were the ultimate control freaks; whatever they wanted to happen, happened. That was how people back then, not just the Jews but everyone, viewed reality.

These things people wrote down reflected how they saw the world at their time in their contexts. These stories they told and the explanations they gave for how and why things happened like they did were filtered through their particular consciousness. – Rob Bell

You are free to believe that every theological statement made in the scriptures is accurate, but understand that that is an assumption and not a conclusion derived from hard evidence. The reason it is assumed to be accurate by most people who call themselves christians is because of the concepts of infallibility/inerrancy and inspiration, both of which must be taken as assumptions also.

The human qualities of the raw materials show through. Naivety, error, contradiction, even (as in the cursing Psalms) wickedness are not removed. The total result is not “the Word of God” in the sense that every passage in itself, gives impeccable science or history. It carries the Word of God. – C.S. Lewis

Personally, I see the scriptures as a process of showing that violence is not a divine but a human characteristic. There is a dual trajectory contrasting two different views of God. Stories are told from two different perspectives – the human persecutor and the human victim, the people doing the violence and the people who are the object of that violence. One sees violence as God’s and as good, the other sees violence as humanity’s and as evil.

God never wanted to use violence, but mankind did; so God worked within mankind’s violence to achieve His purposes, and to slowly wean His people off of the need for blood punishment. – Christian Erickson

pissing off god

One significant reason I think this is because the authors of the NT regularly challenge the violent pictures of God portrayed in the OT by the way in which they quote the OT, intentionally leaving out violent portions (see here).

But the main and most plain reason is because many of the acts of God recorded in the OT are completely contrary to the perfect image of the Father revealed in Jesus. 

God has always been and always will be the same. He wasn’t one way in the OT and something else when Jesus arrived on the scene. Jesus did not change what the Father thought about us or how he treated us. He simply revealed who the Father was.

Jesus came and said, “no, dudes, God’s not like what you think he’s like…let me show you what he’s really like.”

God doesn’t cause sickness; he heals it.

God doesn’t kill people; he raises them from the dead.

God doesn’t make storms happen; he calms them.

God doesn’t discriminate against certain people groups; he hung out with and accepted everyone unconditionally.

The OT is largely not a revelation of God. Jesus said it points to him (John 5:39). It is only a sign. It does reveal some of God’s character, but it is mainly for seeing the foreshadowing of Jesus in it. It’s not primarily for telling us what God is like; only Jesus can do that with perfect accuracy.

If what we perceive to see in the Old Covenant is different or the opposite of what we see in the person of Jesus—who showed us God’s character—then we must side with the expressed image of God in Christ, and then interpret that Old Testament passage through Jesus. The Old Testament is not the expression of God or His nature. If you want to know what God is like or how He acts look at Jesus Christ. Jesus is the picture that God paints of Himself. And it is only through Jesus that we can properly interpret the Old Testament. – Christian Erickson

Thus, I do not consider the OT to always be factually correct in its full representation of God. Instead, I see the OT giving us a picture of what humanity is like apart from knowing God, including its mistaken conceptions about what God is like.

The bible is not a divine monologue, but a divine conversation! As such much of what is recorded is man’s response, mans ideas and man’s argument as we come to terms with the God who reveals Himself. Jesus is not a monologue either, but in Him the divine conversation is met with the perfect human response of agreement. And so in Jesus the conversation comes to a conclusion. – Andre Rabe

I’m not saying that the scriptures themselves are problematic. Rather, it’s our interpretations of them that are the problem – not just of individual passages, but the status we ascribe to the collection as a whole as well.

That the scriptures contain errors does not need to be considered a problem. It is only problematic unless you want to insist that God inspired the scriptures in such a way that it is factually correct in every way and treat them as a theological textbook.

In fact, the theological mistakes in the OT are beneficial to us. They show us the extent of the blindness that people can be in without knowing Christ. That’s why, as Paul wrote, it is useful for teaching, reproof, and correction (2 Timothy 3:16).

The value of the Old Testament may be dependent on what seems its imperfection. It may repel one use in order that we may be forced to use it in another way—to find the Word in it…to re-live, while we read, the whole Jewish experience of God’s gradual and graded self-revelation, to feel the very contentions between the Word and the human material through which it works. – C.S. Lewis


Also see:

4 thoughts on “The Violent God of the Old Testament

  1. Once again AMAZING post! Thank you so much for your writing, you are my favourite writer (ever), because you really write from the heart with compassion and wisdom, logic and understanding – oh and lots of boldness. This kind of encouragement and intellect are lacking in Churchianity and so many are suffering because of it, so please keep on being this beautiful unveiler of the real, raw beauty of the Presence.

    I’m at Bible college at the moment and I learn so much more (and gain so much more of a revelation of true freedom) from your blog entries than I do from my lectures at Bible college. You really speak into the heart of the worries of my life and bring me peace and revelation. Thank you so much, there are no words to express how much I enjoy drinking in the life contained in your words! It makes my day when I read these posts.

    I love how you don’t have an arrogant, “us” and “them” mind set, you are so thoughtful because you see how we’re all one and Christ is all in all. Thanks 🙂

    • Wow thank you for those kind words, Paige. I don’t think I’ve ever been someone’s favorite writer before! It makes me happy to hear that you are benefitting so much from my writings. It’s people like you who keep me going 🙂

      Are we Facebook friends?

  2. Very thoughtful! I do like reading your posts Tyler~! Hopefully I’ll get to see you if I am in Japan anytime soon!

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