This question isn’t new. Since I entered the realm of apologetics and theological studies in my late teens I have been confronted with it many times. Often the inquiry has been little more than an embittered accusation of cosmic barbarism. But recently, particularly as our church has gone through the book of Judges, the query – in multifarious forms – has been sincerely raised again and again: Why is the Old Testament so violent? It’s a legitimate question. Brutality emerges as early as Genesis 4 with the slaughter of Abel, and the theme continues through to the second chapter of Malachi. Covenants are sealed in blood, sacrifices involve butchery, and on repeat we see gory battles and the massacre of entire civilizations. The “Old Testament God” has been accused of brutish catachresis, and on the sidelines Christians all too conveniently (and often embarrassingly) try to excuse the behavior of God or misdirect minds from the content of Scripture. Are the myriad of accusations against the Sovereign valid? Well, certainly not all of them; but even if some of our confusion around the graphic gore of the OT is legitimized (be we Christian, skeptic, or scorner), we must acknowledge that we are questioning or accusing the Creator from the absolute framework and moral concept of goodness that only He could have established.
But even therein lies an issue for some. Are we left with a “do as I say, not as I do” God? Well, you may chuckle, but the answer to that is yea…kind of. He is infinite, after all, and we finite. He is self-centered, and rightfully so, while we are self-centered but sinfully so. He is not primarily an example to follow but a Judge and (to His children) a Father to be obeyed. So that answers two pressing issues: we must be extremely careful when leveling interrogation against God because He is (1) God (with all the convoluted glory that entails) and He is (2) the beginning and end of all absolute goodness and purity which we may attempt to use as an indictment against Him. So, with those realities established, and while bearing them in mind, we can endeavor to answer this enormous inquiry: Why the violence in the Old Testament?
I think there are 5 answers to this question which I will briefly explain:
God employs warfare to show His people how to fight well.
This reality is stated bluntly in Judges 3. God allowed Canaanites to remain in the land of promise “in order that the generations of the people of Israel might know war, to teach war to those who had not known it before.” What we see clearly in the Pentateuch, the Historical books, and the Prophets is that the art of combat was passed from one generation to another. There were always battles to be fought, and the people of God were commissioned to fight well to defend their people and represent their King. Even today, we learn how to fight, both literally and spiritually from what we find in the Scriptures.
God unleashes brutality as a consequence to sin.
When God looked upon the landscape of His creation, the word that flowed from His Divine mouth was “Good.” In beauty the Lord crafted the world; and sin catastrophically marred that beauty. Violence, aggression, and brutality are used and unleashed by God but the culprit behind these is sin itself. So much of the barbarism of the Old Testament is the outworking, the consequence, or the eradication of persistent wickedness.
God wields violence to protect and purify His people.
This is a common motif in Scripture: violence and bloodshed are wielded by the Lord to protect His people from the compromise that would undoubtedly come from the invasion of foreign nations. Just as any loving father would act in aggression toward those who threatened the innocence of his children, so God – as the preeminent Father – responds in holy vengeance against those who would seek the ultimate destruction of His children.
God through bloodshed preserves the line of Christ.
Again and again we see empires rise in the Old Testament seekingly to overthrow and annihilate the people of God. The twelve tribes of Israel are embarrassed, demoralized, enslaved, and tortured. Through patriarchs, prophets, judges, and kings God brings deliverance to ultimately safeguard the line of Messiah. Had the people of Jehovah embraced pacifism they would have been obliterated long before the Savior entered the frame and brought justification to the world.
God uses barbarism to foreshadow the passion of Jesus.
Isaiah 53 and Psalm 22 speak with uncomfortable precision of the suffering Messiah. In the cross and resurrection of Christ we see the convergence of the holy war pattern established in the Old Testament. On the cross Jesus absorbed the furious condemnation of God, and in the resurrection He secured the final victory for the people of God.
Undoubtedly the questions swarming around the violent aggression of the Old Testament will persist, but as Christians we see glimpses of God’s purposes and glory emerging from the darkness to pierce the light.