In no particular order, here are the top seven ways the notoriously violent Old Testament advocates nonviolence.
#1: The OT is a subpart of the Bible’s larger antiviolence narrative.
We must not forget the Bible is not an encyclopedia or a constitution. It is not a list of facts or rules. It’s a narrative, one with a trajectory. It starts in one place and goes to another. It has a beginning, an end, and progression in between.
Consequently, we must interpret the OT within the larger, developing biblical story. When we do, we see that it is part of a clear antiviolence storyline, one that goes like this:
I. God created an entirely nonviolent world (there was no violence between God and man, man and man, man and animal, or animal and animal) and did so in a uniquely nonviolent manner (he spoke it into being);
II. Humankind introduced violence into God’s creation;
III. God was immediately saddened by such violence, condemned it, took steps to keep it in check, and has been trying to persuade humankind to be nonviolent ever since; and
IV. Eventually God will fully restore his originally nonviolent world by banishing all of those who persist in using violence.
Such a plotline, in which the OT plays a crucial role, clearly reveals God’s hatred of violence, a hatred he has always possessed.
#2: Each act of God-sanctioned violence in the OT was antiviolence.
It isn’t merely the Bible’s big-picture narrative that reveals God’s antiviolence. The more specific contexts surrounding each of his individual violent acts do too.
For example, the OT explains that God flooded the earth in response to humankind’s violence, indicating that it had become so corrupt and widespread the only way to end its cycle was to start over with Noah’s family. A drastic measure no doubt, but also a clearly antiviolence one.
God killed all the Egyptian firstborn for a similar reason. He was attempting to stop Egypt’s violent, three-hundred-year enslavement of the Israelites, and he only killed them after numerous other tactics failed to end the exploitation.
Likewise for God’s destruction of Sodom and Gomorrah. He was responding to their perpetual and irredeemable injustices, which included widespread mistreatment of the vulnerable and a town-wide attempted gang rape of two angels whom God had sent there in hopes of sparing the city.
Even the much-condemned conquest of Canaan was undoubtedly antiviolence. God used the small, weak, militaristically-impotent, and recently liberated nation of Israel to evict the domineering Canaanites in a dual attempt to infuse the land with peace and justice while providing the Israelites a place to live free of oppression.
In short, even the most severe God-sanctioned violence in the OT was antiviolence. It was designed to dis-incentivize and end human violence. Their contexts proclaim it. Therefore, although we may reasonably question why God’s OT campaign against human violence was so harsh at times, we can’t reasonably question his hatred of human violence.
#3: In the OT, God used warfare to teach humankind to trust in him instead of violence.
From the very beginning, God designed Israel’s military strategy around building trust in him, not human violence. First, he chose the nation of Israel not because it was big and strong but because it wasn’t. As Moses told the Israelites, “The Lord did not set his affection on you and choose you because you were more numerous than other peoples, for you were the fewest of all peoples” (Deut. 7:7).
Second, God intentionally preserved Israel’s weakness. He prohibited militarism, commanding it not to train for war, not to maintain a standing army, not to stockpile weapons, not to enter into foreign alliances, and not to amass a war chest. And then he forbid the Israelites from taking matters into their own hands, ordering them to fight only after obtaining his permission.
Third, God repeatedly and explicitly instructed the Israelites to trust in him and him alone, telling them not to fear their more powerful enemies because he would protect them. Over and over, his prophets proclaimed God’s superior trustworthiness: “Some trust in chariots and some in horses, but we trust in the name of the Lord our God. They are brought to their knees and fall, but we rise up and stand firm” (Ps. 20:7-8).
Fourth, on the relatively rare occasions God sent the Israelites into battle, he always put them in situations where they were required to rely on him for victory. Instead of equipping them with the most or best weapons, soldiers, and strategies, he ensured they were vastly outnumbered and outgunned. For example, when God ordered Israel to conquer Canaan, it was a small, weak, nomadic, militaristically-impotent tribe of ex-slaves who had been wandering the wilderness for 40 years, while the Canaanites were a well-equipped, highly trained, militarily advanced, aggressive, mighty, populous, and established collection of big, well-fed people who had been dominating the region for centuries. Israel’s only chance of success was God’s miraculous help.
Fifth, despite all these handicaps, God always delivered a victory when he said he would. Every. Single. Time. And maybe most important, the victory was always due to his miraculous intervention. It was always a testament to his providence. In fact, he usually did most of the fighting himself, sometimes all of it. Whenever Israel tried to rely on its own strength for victory, it failed or God rebuked it—or both.
All of this leads to a crucial conclusion: The OT’s holy wars were about trust, not violence. Through them, God was teaching Israel, and by extension humankind, that he was in control and would take care of them, even when the odds were overwhelmingly stacked against them. He was not establishing the moral boundaries of acceptable violence or the criteria for fighting a just war. He was teaching more fundamental ethical lessons than the proper use of violence. He was demonstrating his power, providence, and dependability. War was simply the classroom in which he taught, one he used to lay the moral groundwork for his future anti-violence, anti-killing, and anti-war lessons, as point #6 further explains.
To the extent Israel’s wars have something to say about the ethics of violence, killing, and war, they send a clear antiviolence message: Do not trust in violence. Do not rely on it for your safety or prosperity. Do not put your hope in it. It cannot save you. It only leads to pain, suffering, death, and destruction. At least this is how the Israelites themselves perceived the OT wars. The prophets didn’t conclude, “God killed all the Canaanites so killing God’s enemies is justified, maybe even preferable on occasion.” Instead, they concluded, “God has always taken care of us, so we should trust in him and not the sword.” That’s the moral of the story—for them and for us.
#4: Much of the OT’s violence is a negative object lesson.
As Israel’s wars attest, much of the violence in the OT serves as a negative object lesson, as a warning against how not to act.
For starters, the Bible doesn’t condone everything it describes. Just because it’s in the Bible doesn’t mean God approves of it. There’s a difference between reporting something and endorsing it. The OT writers often documented Israel’s actions without ever explicitly or implicitly indicating that God ordered them, partook in them, or approved of them. Likewise, the Bible doesn’t condone every bad act it doesn’t explicitly condemn. We can’t assume God approved of everything he could have denounced but didn’t. To do so is to make a fallacious argument from silence.
The OT largely portrays life on earth as it is, not as it should be. It gives us a raw, unembellished, gritty, and realistic picture of the human experience. It makes no attempt to present its human characters as perfect role models but instead portrays them as quintessentially human: morally complicated, conflicted, and flawed.
There’s a reason for this. There’s a reason why the OT spends so much time describing what “is” instead of what “ought to be.” Through it, God identified and described the human problem. He demonstrated that we are sinful and broken, the extent to which we are, and the pain and suffering it produces. He demonstrated the reality of our fallen condition.
The OT also demonstrates that we can’t solve our own problem. We can’t fix our own brokenness or cure our own fallen condition. We can’t save ourselves. Even when given specific instructions on exactly how to do so by God himself, we are incapable of carrying them out. As such, the OT demonstrates humanity’s need for a savior.
Had God not demonstrated all these things in the OT, humans likely would not have been receptive to the NT message. Had he not clearly identified and diagnosed the problem, ignorant humans would not have woken up to the fact they had one. Had he not allowed them to fully indulge their fallen desires and reap the consequences, shortsighted humans would not have seen the severity of the problem. Had he not given them instructions on how to fix the problem themselves and stood by while they repeatedly failed to follow them, arrogant humans would not have believed they needed rescuing. Had God not shown them what the solution was not, stubborn humans would not have been receptive to the actual solution.
To explain it in terms of violence, God used the OT to demonstrate that (1) humans have a problem, (2) violence is a large part of it, (3) more or better violence isn’t the solution, and (4) only God can fix it. Had God not demonstrated all of these realities in the OT, humanity would not have been receptive to the NT’s message of nonviolent, self-sacrificial love. Had he not stood by while humanity unsuccessfully tried to solve its problem through violence, had he not allowed humanity to fruitlessly put its trust in violence, it would never have been open to trusting in nonviolence.
This is why there is so much violence in the OT, why it spends so much time describing human violence as it is, and why it’s not until the NT that human violence is described as it ought to be—completely avoided. In fact, this is one oversimplified way to distinguish between the two Testaments: The OT describes the problem and the NT describes the solution. We must not mistake the descriptions of the problem for the solution.
Therefore, like much of the behavior in the OT, its violence serves as a negative object lesson, a warning against the human use of violence. It demonstrates its futility and destructiveness and reveals our human inability to use violence morally, justly, or productively, even when under God’s personal direction.
#5: God’s OT laws were groundbreakingly antiviolence.
As soon as God began directing the OT nation of Israel, he dialed back its violence by instituting unprecedented antiviolence measures. Although such regulations left much to be desired by current standards, they constituted a significant ethical improvement at the time. They were more just and egalitarian than anything the world had yet seen.
For example, compared to its ancient Near Eastern contemporaries, the Mosaic Law’s punishments were notably humane. It never inflicted mutilation as a punishment, limited the number of lashes allowed as the punishment for any crime, and imposed the death penalty much less liberally than its pagan neighbors. Even Israel’s notorious “eye for an eye” legal principle was a moral advancement. In an era in which punishments were often more harmful than their crimes, it functioned as a limitation on legal vengeance. It introduced proportionality, the notion that the punishment should fit the crime but be no worse.
Similarly, God instituted pioneering legal protections for the disadvantaged and defenseless—particularly the poor, widows, orphans, and foreigners. Not only did he prohibit their violent mistreatment and oppression, he also required that they be proactively defended, given justice, and provided with food and clothing. God even restricted the use of violence against the lowest of the low: slaves. Slave owners did not have absolute ownership. They couldn’t do whatever they wanted with their slaves. There were limitations. So yes, God temporarily allowed the practice of slavery to continue, but he also deescalated the violence involved by imposing revolutionary constraints, ones that were unheard-of anywhere else in the known world at the time.
In every regard, God made Israel progressively nonviolent. We must not let our modern sensibilities, which have had centuries to build upon the ethical groundwork God laid in the OT and Jesus perfected in the NT, distract us from judging his OT laws according to the moral climate of the day and the direction in which they moved Israel: toward nonviolence.
#6: The OT lays the foundation for, and points to, God’s wholly nonviolent ethical ideal: Jesus.
Recall that the Bible is a narrative, not an encyclopedia or constitution, and as such, it reveals God’s will within an ongoing, developing story, not in standalone rules meted out one verse, paragraph, or incident at a time.
This is particularly true for God’s ethical revelation. He didn’t just fly by earth one day and drop off a finalized list of universally and eternally applicable moral rules. Instead, through Israel, he first met humans where they were at, established a relationship with them, instituted initial improvements, and generally laid the groundwork for his ethical ideal, which he eventually revealed in Jesus.
This is why Jesus famously proclaimed that he had come to “fulfill” the law and then repeatedly declared, “You have heard it said … but I tell you …” (Matt. 5:17-45). It is also why everyone and everything in the Bible (including God, Jesus, the apostles, the historical context, and the theological context) asserts that Jesus is our moral standard today, not Moses, ancient Israel, or Yahweh.
Consequently, although God’s OT moral improvements were good and necessary in their own right, they weren’t the end goal. They were the beginning of God’s ethical revelation, not its fulfillment. They advanced humanity down the right ethical road, but they didn’t drop it off at the final destination. Instead, they prepared humanity for its final ethical destination: the life and teachings of Jesus.
Of course, there’s some debate about whether Jesus was entirely nonviolent, but no reasonable biblical interpreter claims he wasn’t at least very close to it. He didn’t train his followers how to morally or properly use violence. He didn’t educate them on the difference between just and unjust violence or instruct them on how to satisfy the just war criteria. In fact, he never commanded anyone to use any type of violence for any reason. Instead, he explicitly taught his followers to refrain from using violence, even against their enemies. Then he went even further! He went beyond requiring mere nonviolence and commanded acts of antiviolence. He instructed his followers to oppose and overcome violence with love, i.e. with proactive, self-sacrificial acts of service. And to top it all off, his life perfectly exemplified his teachings. He lived a life of loving service to others and, with one debatable minor exception, he never used violence himself, even refraining from defending himself against being tortured to death.
In short, the OT prepared humanity to receive God’s ethical ideal and that ideal turned out to be clearly, consistently, and radically (if not entirely) nonviolent and antiviolence.
#7: Intriguing evidence suggests God didn’t commit or condone much of the violence the OT says he did.
Scriptural and historical evidence suggests that God didn’t engage in much, or even most, of the violence the OT writers attributed to him. Instead, it suggests they projected it onto him.
Let’s start with the scriptural evidence. According to the Bible itself, God’s character is most accurately revealed in the person of Jesus. He is the clearest picture we have of what God is like. He is God’s own self-revelation. Jesus claimed to know him is to know God. In fact, Jesus claimed he was the only way to truly know God. In fact, Jesus wasn’t merely a full and perfect portrayal of God. He was God. He was the “incarnation” of God on earth. Furthermore, the Bible tells us that everything in Scripture ultimately testifies about and points to Jesus. It says he is the fulfillment of all Scripture.
Consequently, we must interpret the entire Bible through the lens of Jesus, particularly the OT. And when we do, it’s difficult to conclude that the OT’s violent portrayals of God are accurate. As we glimpsed above, Jesus revealed a nonviolent God. He revealed a God who self-sacrificially suffers violence instead of inflicts it, who dies for his enemies instead of destroys them, who saves instead of kills. To put it mildly, it’s hard to imagine the turn-the-other-cheek, love-your-enemies, crucified Jesus committing the violence the OT writers attributed to God.
So if God is as nonviolent as Jesus demonstrates, what was going on in the OT? Likely the same thing that was going on with God’s ethics: incremental revelation. Just as God gradually revealed his ethical ideal, he also gradually revealed his true character, laying the foundation for it in the OT and then fully revealing it in Jesus. Let’s take a quick look at a few pieces of evidence that support this theory.
For starters, God has chosen to redeem the world through humans, through the very people who need redeeming. That means his communications pass through sinful beings who have their own flawed preconceptions, motives, desires, and agendas. The Bible itself is no exception. He used such human beings to write, transmit, preserve, and translate it.
Yes, God inspired the biblical authors, but he didn’t totally control them. He didn’t possess their bodies and direct their every thought or dictate their every written word. He took the initiative and influenced their hearts and minds, but he didn’t completely override their free will or entirely neutralize their humanity. There’s a reason it’s called divine inspiration and not divine control.
Therefore, as fallen humans, the OT writers likely projected many of their own selfish desires and agendas onto God, just like we all do today. They likely rationalized their own detestable behavior by telling themselves it was God’s will and invoked his name on behalf of endeavors he wants nothing to do with, like their own cravings for domination and revenge. In short, they likely remade him, at least to some degree, in their own violent image.
Similarly, the OT writers’ portrayals of God were likely influenced by the ancient Near Eastern culture in which they lived, one that provided them with numerous incentives to depict him as violent. For example, at the time, it was common practice to equate your king’s commands and actions with your god’s commands and actions. So when the king, who was seen as a divine extension of the national deity, used or commanded violence, your god had used or commanded violence. Relatedly, the God of the OT looks suspiciously like all other ancient Near Eastern gods, particularly in regard to violence. He bears a striking resemblance to the warrior deities of the time, who humans believed were inherently violent and deeply involved in nationalistic violence. Furthermore, attributing violence to your god was a common means of glorifying him. In fact, the more extreme the violence attributed to him, the more he was glorified, which obviously led to exaggerated claims and the use of hyperbole. We see evidence of this in the OT’s account of the conquest of Canaan, wherein one passage declares a city was completely destroyed or a people group was totally annihilated but a later passage (not to mention modern archaeology) reveals that the city and people group survived.
All of this suggests God may not have committed or condoned the un-Christlike violence the OT writers attributed to him. It’s possible, even likely, that they brought their own subjective perspectives to the writing table (including some deeply ingrained beliefs about what it meant to be a god, act like a god, and please a god) and that their worldviews, cultural assumptions, and sinful natures affected how they perceived God and interpreted his actions. To state it more bluntly, it’s likely that their humanity at least partially obscured their view of God, causing them to occasionally misperceive, misunderstand, and misconstrue him.
And maybe God purposefully allowed it. Maybe he temporarily allowed humankind to believe things about him that weren’t true and portray him in ways that weren’t accurate for the same reasons he allowed OT Israel to engage in many less-than-ideal ethical practices. Maybe God used incremental character revelation just like he used incremental ethical revelation. Maybe the violence in the OT says as much about the evolution of humanity’s conception of God as it does about how God actually interacts with the world.
Of course, the evidence that suggests God may not have committed some, or even all, of the violence the OT attributes to him is simply icing on the nonviolence cake. The OT’s case for nonviolence is not based on such evidence. It is simply strengthened by it.
As everything above makes clear, context is the key to seeing how the OT advocates nonviolence. When we place all of God’s commands and actions within their proper biblical, literary, cultural, historical, and theological contexts, a consistent antiviolence message emerges. In fact, regardless of how literally you interpret the OT, there are many sensible reasons to read it as an antiviolence text. To further explore these reasons and others, check out my book The Old Testament Case for Nonviolence.