Isn't the Old Testament God Violent?

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It’s tempting to gloss over the Bible and see two contrary pictures of God: a short-tempered Old Testament God and an all-loving New Testament counterpart. Can we trust a God with seemingly contradictory personalities? A God who sanctions violent destruction? This doesn’t seem like the God who says, “Come to me, all you who are weary and burdened, and I will give you rest” (Matt. 11:28). With Deuteronomy 13 and 20 as our key texts, we’ll dive into God’s purpose in Old Testament violence.

God’s Chosen People

God’s people have great importance in the Old Testament. Slavery, wanderings, and war-plagued them. In order to fulfill God’s plan fully revealed in Jesus, He ensured His people would never suffer total annihilation — especially in war. Destruction of Israel’s enemies was necessary to survive as God’s people. Moses relays God’s message that, “God is the one who goes with you to fight for you against your enemies to give you victory” (Deut. 20:1). The preservation of God’s people and the messianic promise was at stake. God sanctioned violence in order to preserve this covenantal promise.

Sin Has Consequences

“For all have sinned and fallen short of the glory of God” (Romans 3:23). God remains justified as a perfect judge when executing justice. We neither have to apologize on God’s behalf, nor are we the victim. God was serious when sharing the reason why He deals harshly with surrounding nations. In reference to peoples like the Canaanites, God instructed Israel to “completely destroy them” because “they will teach you to follow all the detestable things they do in worshipping other gods, and you will sin against the Lord your God” (Deut. 20:16-18). Israel’s holiness was at stake. Our parents’ advice rings true. We are influenced by those we spend a lot of time with. Compromise with sinful nations put Israel at risk of turning away from the Lord.

God did not turn a blind eye to the Israelites’ sin either. Moses warns against fellow Israelites who entice them to “go and worship other gods” (Deut. 13:6). They must put ungodly influences to death in order to maintain purity. Israel’s devotion to God was of primary importance. God would have no other gods before Him. The holiness of the Israelites preached singular worship to God. Blessings and curses are a familiar theme in the Old Testament. Obedience brought blessing and disobedience cursing. Our parents’ discipline motivated by their love for us is reminiscent of a God who deeply cares about His people’s obedience and holiness.

God Provided Opportunistic Redemption

God instructed Israel to offer peace as the first course of action before attacking a city. Had the people of the city accepted Israel’s offer, they were taken as plunder (Deut. 20:10-15) and incorporated into the Israelites’ fold. Those who refused, suffered the consequences. God did have the Israelites conduct themselves more directly with those who immediately surrounded them, like the Hittites and Canaanites, but this extends beyond the scope of this discussion. Nevertheless, it would be false to assume that God never offered salvation to non-Israelites. For example, Israel was known as a nation who welcomed and gave sojourners rights. God’s love reverberated in Israel’s dealings with other nations. It is easy to look at Sodom and Gomorrah (Gen 18:1-19:29) and point the finger at a God who dispensed justice irrationally. Taking a closer look, God agreed to Abraham’s plea to spare the city if ten righteous people were found (Gen 18:32). None were, and God remained faithful in executing justice to these cities.

A Good Lion

It seems fitting to remember a chills-inducing line in C.S. Lewis’, The Lion, the Witch, and the Wardrobe. When Beaver describes the prophetic Aslan and it is learned he is a lion, Lucy and Susan ask if this lion is safe. Beaver quizzically, yet confidently, responds, “Who said anything about safe? ‘Course he isn’t safe. But he’s good. He’s the King, I tell you.”

The God who sanctioned Old Testament violence is consistent with the God who died on a cross for sin. Jesus views the preservation of His church and the cost of sin with the same degree of seriousness we see in the Old Testament. We do not have to apologize for God. It’s easy to wonder if we could trust a fierce lion. Yet, like Beaver, we can remain confident that our God is good in all He does.