Old Testament Violence

I remember like it was yesterday, driving at night along an unlit road of acreage development, when a cat came tearing out of the bushes and ran under my car. I killed a cat and the thud it made has stayed with me to this day.  A recent road safety campaign says that killing a pedestrian stays with you for life, and I can to some extent identify with that.  So if an accident can leave a scar like that on your psyche, how much more would a deliberate act of murder?

When the entire population of the world had sunk into a cesspool of depravity, God wiped them all out in a global flood.  When Sodom and Gomorrah went to pot and became so self-occupied and immoral, God destroyed the lot by raining fire from heaven.  I can live with the idea of an almighty God wiping out those who have offended Him in deliberate defiance and rejection. However, when Israel left Egypt and entered the Promised Land after 40 years in the desert, God made them His agents of destruction, sometimes telling them to not even leave babies alive.  I do believe that if I killed a baby in a premeditated act, I would not be able to live with myself any longer, and the moment of my suicide would not be far away. It's not God exterminating degenerates I have trouble with, but it is God using His own people to do His dirty work.

The purpose of this essay, is to come to terms with the reality of that aspect of God's nature and to try to understand the motivation behind it.


There are too many instances of violence to mention them all here, so I'll give just a random selection:


"And he said to them, "thus says the Lord, the God of Israel, 'Every man of you put his sword upon his thigh, and go back and forth from gate to gate in the camp, and kill every man his brother, and every man his friend, and every man his neighbor.'"  So the sons of Levi did as Moses instructed, and about three thousand men of the people fell that day." (Exodus 32:27-28)


"So we captured all his (Sihon's) cities at that time, and utterly destroyed the men women and children of every city.  We left no survivor." (Deuteronomy 2:34).

"When the Lord your God shall bring you into the land where you are entering to possess it, and shall clear away many nations before you, the Hittites and the Girgashites and the Amorites and the Canaanites and the Perizzites and the Hivites and the Jebusites, seven nations greater and stronger than you, and when the Lord your God shall deliver them before you, and you shall defeat them, then you shall utterly destroy them.  You shall make no covenant with them and show no favor to them. Furthermore, you shall not intermarry with them; you shall not give your daughters to their sons, nor shall you take their daughters for your sons.  For they will turn your sons away from serving Me to serve other gods; then the anger of the Lord will be kindled against you and He will quickly destroy you. But thus you shall do to them: you shall tear down their altars, and smash their sacred pillars, and hew down their Asherim, and burn their graven images with fire. For you are a holy people to the Lord your God; the Lord your God has chosen you to be a people for His own possession out of all the peoples who are on the face of the earth." (Deuteronomy 7:1-6)

"And they utterly destroyed everything in the city, both man and woman, young and old, and ox and sheep and donkey, with the edge of the sword." (Joshua 6:21)

"And all who fell that day, both men and women, were 12,000 - all the people of Ai.  For Joshua did not withdraw his hand with which he stretched out the javelin until he had utterly destroyed all the inhabitants of Ai. 
(Joshua 8:25-26)

"Thus says the Lord of hosts, 'I will punish Amalek for what he did to Israel, how he set himself against him on the way while he was coming up from Egypt. Now go and and strike Amalek and utterly destroy all that he has, and do not spare him; but put to death both man and woman, child and infant, ox and sheep, camel and donkey.'" 
(1 Samuel 15:3-4)

"Samaria shall bear her guilt; for she hath rebelled against her God: they shall fall by the sword; their infants shall be dashed in pieces, and their women with child shall be ripped up." (Hosea 13:16)


To truly gain an understanding of the mind of God in relation to these atrocious acts of violence, we have to delve deeply into His purposes and into how He sees the world, the people in it, and the way in which they relate to His eternal purpose.


I have often wondered why:


God tells us through Moses: I am a jealous God (Exodus 20:5),
God tells us through John: God is Love (1 John 4:8), and
God tells us through Paul: Love is not jealous (1 Corinthians 13:4).


I was a Management Analyst before medical retirement, and therefore stuck with being a frustratingly logical thinker. The laws of logic don't allow the validity of all three statements.  There is only one way out:  The Hebrew word translated as 'jealous' in Exodus, means something different from the Greek word translated as 'jealous' in Corinthians.  (The word for Love is definitely the same).

The word 'jealous' actually derives from the Hebrew and Greek words meaning 'zealous'. Zealous means having zeal, or to feel very strongly about something.  From that perspective, jealousy can have both a positive as well as a negative connotation. And that is where I believe the answer lies. (I am not trying to make excuses for God, but I do so much want to understand.)  There are numerous references in the Bible to God's jealousy, however Godly jealousy is a positive zeal, protecting the paramount importance of His righteousness. Negative zeal or jealousy is more commonly known as envy, tending towards covetousness.


The standard God requires from His people is absolute. It is something we humans find very difficult to come to grips with. Only one bite from a forbidden fruit got Adam and Eve chucked out of Eden, condemned to die.  There were no second chances. God expected His Chosen People to obey His first commandment (to have no gods before Him) absolutely. One little dabble with a golden calf and the Lord blotted their names out of His book.  God had no sympathy whatsoever for the pagan tribes occupying the Promised Land, because they worshipped false gods.  Let's look really closely at this: these weren't real gods, at war with Yahweh.  They were make-believe statues that men invented. God wasn't jealous of powerless puppets.  He was zealously guarding a spiritual principle central to His creation: the need to always give God first place in your heart.  He doesn't want an eternal partner who is only partially committed to Him, or fully committed part of the time.

If we take this just a little bit further, we can see that God requires 100% commitment from those who profess to be His followers (Matthew 22:37). Under the Old Covenant, the Law, there were degrees of seriousness of transgressions, but there was no tolerance level for the breaking of the first commandment, to have no other gods before Him. Under the New Covenant, even the smallest transgression makes you guilty of transgressing the whole of the Law (James 2:10), but fortunately the penalty has been paid and we now operate under the law of liberty.  However, that doesn't mean He has given up on His desire to occupy first place in our hearts.  In fact, the eternal purpose depends on it.


So detrimental is breaking the first commandment, that He has totally wiped out those who participated in idol worship, time and again.  The sons of Levi slaughtered 3000 of their own people immediately after they worshipped the golden calf and God blotted all the guilty parties out of His book, 'smote' them (Exodus 32) and eventually banned them from entering the Promised Land (Deuteronomy 1). Only Joshua and Caleb were exempted. Not even Moses was allowed in.  Whole nations (although 'nations' were usually numbered in the thousands in those days, not millions) were eradicated from the Promised Land.

God knows the inevitable consequences of having other gods before Him on our physical and spiritual health. He knows that worshipping an idol will result in a terrible degeneration of moral standards (eg. Deuteronomy 7).  He knows that participating in false doctrine will result in division and hatred among His people, and a diseased Bride for His Son.  So in one sense, the commandment is there for our own welfare and protection.  But there has to be more to it; something to do with the severity of the impact idol worship has on the dynamics and balance of the heavenly realm.

The Promised Land of the Israelites is an analogy or 'picture' of an eternal place.  I'm talking about the place we will eventually occupy when we are in eternal marital relationship with Jesus. As Christians, we are all on a journey through the desert, trying to reach the Promised Land. That place will have no room for other gods, or evil intentions, or rebellions. And we will all be its guardians.


First let's imagine ourselves in God's shoes.  The hugely different perspective would be a real shock to the system. Sin, for instance, you would see with a totally accurate appreciation of how it affects the workings of the spiritual realm, the chaos it brings. This is something we as humans can hardly grasp. Imagine for a moment, that you were the Judge, and grace and mercy were in your hand.  Imagine that you could decide who would live and who would die.  And you would be totally righteous, all-knowing, all-powerful. No fancy maneuvering by a skilled and expensive lawyer will find loopholes in your Law.  Legal arguments bear no weight in your court.  Surely if you were in that position, you would see everything differently. (I know how having faced leukemia and a prognosis of about a year to live changed my outlook on life. And still, I was only seeing things from an earthly aspect.) God sees everything that happens primarily from the perspective of His eternal purpose, and whether it adds or subtracts from its coming to fruition.

He hasn't been reticent. He told us in no uncertain terms what He was expecting.  The Ten Commandments were only the beginning.  Pages and pages of rules and regulations followed.  Then He came Himself, in human form, to tell us what those laws really meant. The first, and no doubt the most important, commandment is to have no other gods before Him, which is a bit of puzzle in itself, because He knew there are no other 'gods'. Other gods exist only in our imagination.  But we give birth to them by creating mental pictures that represent them. Whether that picture is a golden calf, a life's ambition, or a new branch of Christianity, (espousing some new doctrines that have universal appeal), really makes no difference.   When God says He is a jealous God, He knows what is good for us.  Whilst the New Covenant has brought us a new freedom and forgiveness of sin, I have no doubt that God's stance on idol worship has not changed one iota.


I guess that if we could somehow place ourselves in God's shoes and see the big picture from His angle, most things would take on an entirely new and previously unnoticed colour.  Even mass disasters would only rate major significance in terms of eternal impact. (Yet He cares deeply and individually for every person affected.) For a start, time has little meaning in eternity.  When God sees people suffering, dying of hunger, dying of disease, killing each other, it is over in the blink of an eye. It's not that He doesn't understand what we're going through, because, after all, He created time. But what is foremost in His mind is the ultimate outcome.  Did we draw near to Him in our suffering? Did the suffering change us, or our outlook? Did the suffering prepare us for eternity, to be part of the bride? 

Let's take the tragic passing of thousands of people in an earthquake. God knows exactly where they are going to spend eternity.  He knows which ones wouldhave chosen to follow Him, had they had the opportunity presented to them. The agony of their passing must take less than a heartbeat in the overall context of eternity.  Far more agonising to God would be the loss of souls that could possibly have spent eternity with Him.  “He is not willing that any should perish.”  
(2 Peter 3:9)

Let's take the grief and hardship suffered by the family of the terminally ill.  I had leukemia, but by God's grace I am still alive. My mother died of multiple myeloma, or bone cancer.  If I had a choice, give me leukemia anytime.  With bone cancer, the basic infrastructure of your body slowly crumbles. She could break a rib just by breathing, sitting in a chair.  You couldn't put an arm around her, to help her to the toilet, because you would probably break one of her bones. Although she was in unbelievable pain and she knew she was going to be with her Lord when she passed on, she wasn't gonna leave this planet unless she was dragged, kicking and screaming, by the scruff of her neck.  How does God view this suffering? I think He mostly appreciates the way in which we acknowledge Him in everything. And how the suffering prepares us for eternity.

Let's take the horrendous aftermath and grieving following the senseless slaughter in another terrorist attack. Everyday we hear of more car bombs going off in Iraq and of American soldiers dying.  For every American, ten or twenty Iraqis die, but still our pain is mostly for the deaths on our side. Yet His primary concern is not the loss of life, but the loss of souls. And the heart-rending rebellion of His Creation.

Everything looks different when seen through God's eyes.

God asked Job when he complained about all the hardships that had befallen him:


"Where were you when I laid the foundations of the earth?  Have you understood the expanse of the earth?"  "Can you lead forth a constellation in its season?"  "Who has put wisdom in the innermost being, or has given understanding to the mind?"  "Is it at your command that the eagle mounts up, and makes his nest up high?" "Will the faultfinder contend with the Almighty? Let him who reproves God answer it."  "Will you condemn Me that you may be justified?" (a selection from Job 38-40, NASB)


Even after all this study, I still find it terribly difficult, intellectually, to reconcile divinely sanctioned violence with my perception of a loving God. There must be a part of Him that so abhors the spiritual chaos generated by idol worship, that His demand for 100% commitment under the Old Covenant included the expectation that His people be prepared to back Him up to the point of destroying those who were beyond redemption. I suspect that there is a lot more to it, things we just don't understand. When we are finally enlightened, I am sure we will find that God's demand for such level of commitment had a very good and valid reason, which made man's participation in these destructive acts essential.

Think of unfaithfulness in a marital relationship, the mistrust it generates and the often irreparable damage it does to its foundation.  This may to some very small extent analogise the spiritual chaos we are talking about. The Promised Land we are seeking is sacrosanct and all Christians must participate in its protection.

Like Job, I struggle with my limited understanding of spiritual matters. I argue with God that it shouldn't be this way. And fortunately for us, under the New Covenant and Jesus' mediation (see my essay on the New Covenant), things no longer arethis way.  But it's useless to pretend that this side of His nature isn't real.


"It is a terrifying thing to fall into the hands of the living God" (Hebrews 10:31)


There is a black and white side to God, a side which will not compromise the perfection of His righteousness. And He zealously protects that standard, knowing the eternal purpose cannot succeed without it. All the more reason to get our act together, and take the Gospel message seriously.

And let's not allow this to blind us from seeing all the other wonderful aspects of God's nature.  Here I refer especially to His 100% commitment to us, being prepared to die a human death on a cross, to save us from the clutches of Satan and eternal separation from Him.

What don’t we like about God?  We don’t like His pedantic sticking to the rules. Surely He could loosen up a little?  Surely He could give a little leeway? We have a problem with the lengths He will go to, in order to enforce His standards.