Chapter 1

Violence in the Old Testament

 

At first glance, the situation isn’t pretty. In fact, it’s downright ugly.

Sometimes God himself committed mass murder, once drowning to death “every living thing on the face of the earth” except for a handful of humans (Noah and his family) and a few hundred animals (Gen. 7:21-23). Later he “struck down all the firstborn in Egypt” and produced citywide “wailing … for there was not a house without someone dead” (Exod. 12:29-30). On one occasion, he sent an angel to kill 185,000 people while they slept.[1] On another, he “rained down burning sulfur” on two whole cities (Sodom and Gomorrah), killing everyone who lived in them (Gen. 19:24-26).

At other times God helped or commanded his followers to commit mass murder. In fact, the instances in which Israel destroyed a city and all its inhabitants in direct obedience to God’s instructions are too numerous to detail. The tenth chapter in the book of Joshua alone contains more than a dozen such examples.[2] Any time Israel attacked cities within the land God promised them (the “Promised Land”), they were under standing orders to “not leave alive anything that breathes. Completely destroy them … as the Lord your God has commanded you” (Deut. 20:16-17).[3] Similarly, whenever his followers conquered a city outside of the Promised Land and it tempted them to worship other gods, they were to “put to the sword all who live in that town. You must destroy it completely, both its people and its livestock” (Deut. 13:12-15). On one occasion when the Israelites themselves created an idol, God commanded each Levite man to “strap a sword to his side. Go back and forth through the camp from one end to the other, each killing his brother and friend and neighbor,” which they did, executing about three thousand people (Exod. 32:27-28). On another occasion when many Israelites rebelled against him, he handed them over to his faithful followers, who slaughtered 500,000 of them.[4]

God spared no one from his violence,[5] not even women and children. In fact, on a few occasions, he explicitly commanded his followers to kill them. “Now go and attack Amalek, and utterly destroy all that they have; do not spare them, but kill both man and woman, child and infant, ox and sheep, camel and donkey” (1 Sam. 15:3 NRSV). God was so jealous of his followers worshipping other gods that he commanded them to publicly stone to death any individual who merely tempted them to do so, even if it was their own wife or child.[6] In one fit of rage, God promised to grab those who disobeyed him and “smash them one against the other, parents and children alike…. I will allow no pity or mercy or compassion to keep me from destroying them” (Jer. 13:14). His prophet Hosea warned his own people of the same punishment for disobedience: “Even if they rear children, I will bereave them of every one.… Ephraim is blighted, their root is withered, they yield no fruit. Even if they bear children, I will slay their cherished offspring” (Hos. 9:12, 16). Likewise, when the people of Samaria had rebelled against him, he warned, “They will fall by the sword; their little ones will be dashed to the ground, their pregnant women ripped open” (Hos. 13:16). In a similar scene, God’s prophet Isaiah announced that the “infants” of their enemy Babylon “will be dashed to pieces before their eyes; their houses will be looted and their wives violated” (Isa. 13:16). Their attackers “will have no mercy on infants, nor will they look with compassion on children” (Isa. 13:18).

God even promised he would cause his enemies, which broadly included anyone who disobeyed him, to cannibalize their own children. “I will make them eat the flesh of their sons and daughters, and they will eat one another’s flesh because their enemies will press the siege so hard against them to destroy them” (Jer. 19:9). “Therefore in your midst parents will eat their children, and children will eat their parents” (Ezek. 5:10). “They will be drunk on their own blood, as with wine” (Isa. 49:26). “You will eat the flesh of your sons and the flesh of your daughters” (Lev. 26:29).

Mothers cannibalizing their own children? Seriously? Indeed, such abominations occurred. At least the prophet Jeremiah later lamented their occurrence.[7]

On the other hand, unlike Jeremiah, other Old Testament (“OT”) writers rejoiced at the thought of such brutalities being inflicted upon their enemies: “Daughter Babylon, doomed to destruction, happy is the one who repays you according to what you have done to us. Happy is the one who seizes your infants and dashes them against the rocks” (Ps. 137:8-9).

Furthermore, God’s violence often seemed arbitrary, petty, disproportionate, and vindictive. He killed seventy people merely for looking inside a box (the Ark of the Covenant) he had commanded them not to.[8] Later he killed a man (Uzzah) for disobediently touching it while trying to prevent it from falling to the ground.[9] He sent a bear to maul forty-two boys who had taunted the baldness of one of his prophets (Elisha).[10] He burned 102 men alive just to prove he was God.[11] After he killed a man named Er, he killed Er’s brother for refusing to impregnate Er’s widow.[12] After one of God’s followers (Samson) picked a fight with the Philistines, God gave him the power to strike down 1,000 men with a donkey’s jawbone and later the strength to collapse a building onto 3,000 people, crushing them to death.[13] On another occasion, God helped Samson satisfy a gambling debt by giving him the strength to kill and rob thirty men.[14] As one of Israel’s enemies was retreating, God hurled “huge stones from heaven on them,” killing more of them than the Israelites had killed by the sword (Josh. 10:9-11 NRSV). When God destroyed Sodom and Gomorrah, he also killed a good man’s wife simply for disobeying his command to refrain from watching it.[15] Ever heard of Job? God allowed Satan to torture him and kill his children as part of a divine bet. Do you know why childbirth is so painful? Because one woman (Eve) disobeyed God one time thousands of years ago in the Garden of Eden.[16]

God also frequently demanded that his followers enthusiastically take part in his vengeance. He proclaimed, “A curse on anyone who is lax in doing the Lord’s work! A curse on anyone who keeps their sword from bloodshed!” (Jer. 48:10). When one of his priests, Phinehas, drove a spear right through an idolater and into the stomach of another, God praised him for being “zealous for the honor of his God” (Num. 25:7-13). When the Israelites complained to their leaders that God was killing his own people, God sent a plague to kill 14,700 more.[17] After receiving direct instructions from God to inflict vengeance on the Midianites, Moses became angry when a group of army officers killed all the men but spared the women and children, taking them as plunder instead of putting them to death. In fact, he was so outraged he ordered them to fix it by killing everyone who remained except for the virgin girls, who they could save for themselves.[18]

If you doubt the strictness with which God demanded Israel’s obedience, read Leviticus 26:14-39. He promises the disobedient will experience sudden terror, wasting diseases and fever, barren ground, wild animals who will rob them of their children and destroy their cattle, plagues, hunger, cannibalism, paranoid fear, defeat at the hands of their enemies, destruction of their cities, rule by those who hate them, and ultimately death. God wasn’t messing around.

In addition to shedding appalling amounts of blood, God also instituted civil laws so strict and comprehensive even a control-obsessed tyrant like Stalin would have been jealous. He regulated every aspect of ancient Israelite life (e.g. work, family, health, food, drink, religion, politics, etc.) and often in excruciating detail, right down to the type and location of the fringes (called tzitzits) on their clothing. Worst of all, the punishments for violating such laws were often shockingly harsh. For example, he prescribed the death penalty for adultery, sex before marriage, homosexual intercourse between men, prostitution, incest, bestiality, rape, kidnapping, sorcery, false prophecy, idol worship, blasphemy, merely approaching the tabernacle (if you weren’t a Levite), touching the foot of Mount Sinai, showing contempt for a judge or priest, laboring on the Sabbath, taking advantage of the widow or fatherless, and even attacking, cursing, or disobeying your parents.[19] Lest you think it was all empty threats, the Bible records many examples of such punishments actually being imposed, often by the humiliating and tortuous means of public stoning.

Speaking of intolerance, God also demonstrated bias against the physically disfigured and handicapped. In a passage worthy of Hitler’s Mein Kampf, he told Moses to tell Aaron:

For the generations to come none of your descendants who has a defect may come near to offer the food of his God. No man who has any defect may come near: no man who is blind or lame, disfigured or deformed; no man with a crippled foot or hand, or who is a hunchback or a dwarf, or who has any eye defect, or who has festering or running sores or damaged testicles…. because of his defect, he must not go near the curtain or approach the altar, and so desecrate my sanctuary. (Lev. 21:17-19, 23)

Likewise, “No one whose testicles are crushed or whose penis is cut off shall be admitted to the assembly of the Lord” (Deut. 23:1 NRSV).

To top it all off, the violence and bloodshed committed by God and those under his direction doesn’t merely appear in a few atypical passages. It is pervasive. Preeminent Christian pacifist John Howard Yoder observed that “holy war is undeniable in the foundational experience of the Hebrew people.”[20] He admitted that “the entire impression left with the modern reader by the narrative of the Hebrew Bible is one of violence being not merely tolerated but fostered and glorified.”[21] Likewise, Catholic priest and pacifist John Dear acknowledged that “the Hebrew scriptures are replete with portrayals of a warmaking God,” one “who wipes out the enemies of Israel and who is tempted to destroy Israel as well.”[22] Pastor and peace theologian Jean Lasserre concurred: “Everywhere in the Old Testament human life is cheap, and the best believers have scarcely felt any scruples about shedding blood.”[23] Here’s how OT professor Eric Seibert describes it:

Violence appears early and often in the Old Testament. Stories of killing and kidnapping, rape and murder, war and genocide line its pages. Virtually every book of the Old Testament contains some mention of violence, and violence features very prominently in several of them. It is an integral part of many of the most well-known and beloved Bible stories: Noah and the ark, Joshua and the Battle of Jericho, David and Goliath, Daniel and the lions’ den—to name just a few![24]

Summarizing biblical scholar Raymund Schwager’s analysis, theologian and nonviolent activist Walter Wink writes,

There are six hundred passages of explicit violence in the Hebrew Bible, one thousand verses where God's own violent actions of punishment are described, a hundred passages where Yahweh expressly commands others to kill people, and several stories where God irrationally kills or tries to kill for no apparent reason (for example, Exod. 4:24-26). Violence, Schwager concludes, is easily the most often mentioned activity and central theme of the Hebrew Bible.[25]

And then there’s the OT’s legacy of violence. Throughout modern history, people have cited the OT to justify slavery, war, colonialism, and even genocide, not to mention all the other evils associated with such endeavors, like theft, rape, and kidnapping. It played a role in rationalizing the Christian Crusades, the Catholic Inquisition, the Thirty Years’ War, the Western world’s enslavement of Africans, the slaughter of American Indians, apartheid in South Africa, and many other historical atrocities. In fact, both sides in every major war fought between “Christian” nations during the last few centuries invoked the OT to sanction their violence, including the American Revolution, the American Civil War, WWI, and WWII.

That may be the worst aspect of the OT’s appalling legacy. Christians themselves have contributed to it as much as anyone. As clergyman and OT scholar Christopher J. H. Wright observes, “The centuries of Christendom have witnessed professing Christian leaders right up to modern times using the methods of conquest, torture, execution, horrifying punishments, and racist genocide—and claiming theological justification from their reading of the Old Testament.”[26] Even many of the church’s greatest theologians, like Augustine and Calvin, cited it to justify Christian violence.

Ironically, and unfortunately, the OT’s violence isn’t limited to the OT. Why would a good and wise God allow such widespread violence to be included in the Bible knowing it would inevitably be co-opted by fallen humans to justify further violence? After all, no one inclined towards violence or looking to justify his violence will read the OT and conclude that violence is unacceptable.

All of this has caused non-Christians to be even less gracious in their OT analyses. Atheist, scientist, and philosopher Richard Dawkins describes the God of the OT as “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.”[27] He adds, “And the Bible story of Joshua's destruction of Jericho and the invasion of the Promised Land in general, is morally indistinguishable from Hitler's invasion of Poland, or Saddam Hussein's massacres of the Kurds and the Marsh Arabs.”[28] Similarly, Brendan Powell Smith claims Israel’s God “exhibits all the worst attributes of man” and calls him “power-mad, belligerent, masochistic, petty, woefully insecure, extremely dangerous and unpredictable (and seemingly not too bright).”[29] Even American Founding Father and deist Thomas Paine weighed in:

Whenever we read the obscene stories, the voluptuous debaucheries, the cruel and torturous executions, the unrelenting vindictiveness, with which more than half the Bible is filled, it would be more consistent that we called it the word of a demon, than the word of God. It is a history of wickedness, that has served to corrupt and brutalize mankind; and, for my part, I sincerely detest it, as I detest everything that is cruel.[30]

I could go on. We haven’t even mentioned the countless number of animal sacrifices God demanded from Israel. But you get the point. The OT is full of all kinds of God-driven atrocities—holy warfare, genocide, infanticide, capital punishment, cannibalism, rape, plagues, famines, etc.—and portrays God as a dictator, torturer, executioner, and mass murderer. There’s no getting around it. The God of the OT seems like a moral monster, to put it mildly.

So what are we supposed to do with all of this OT violence? There are three primary, and intertwined, issues. First, can we reconcile the violence of the OT with the nonviolence of the New Testament (“NT”)? Can we honestly and rationally square God’s violent OT actions and commands with Jesus’ nonviolent actions and commands? Second, who are we to imitate and obey? Are we to ruthlessly and mercilessly slaughter our enemies like the OT God or are we to self-sacrificially love our enemies like Jesus? What is the Christian moral standard today—the OT, the NT, or a bit of both? Third, what is God really like? Is he more like the angry, jealous, jihadist God revealed in the OT or the patient, merciful, nonviolent God revealed in Jesus?

In the following chapters, I will answer all of those questions and more. I will explain not only how the OT’s violence can be reconciled with the NT’s nonviolence but also how it supports the NT’s case for nonviolence and how the OT itself advocates for nonviolence. And along the way, I will vindicate God’s character.

[1] Isa. 37:36-37; 2 Kings 19:35.

[2] See also Josh. 6:21; 8:24-29; 11:6-23; Judg. 1:17; Deut. 2:32-35; 3:3-6.

[3] See also 7:1-2.

[4] 2 Chron. 13:1-18.

[5] Whenever I refer to violence in this book, I mean the use of physical force against a person or his property. In other words, I mean it in the relatively narrow, traditional sense, not in the broader, more modern sense of any action that causes any type of physical or nonphysical (verbal, psychological, spiritual, structural, cultural, etc.) harm. Actions that cause the latter types of harm are often as destructive as those that cause physical harm, but they are not our concern here. We have our hands full with the former type.

[6] Deut. 13:6-15.

[7] Lam. 2:11; 2:20; 4:10.

[8] 1 Sam. 6:19.

[9] 2 Sam. 6:6-7.

[10] 2 Kings 2:23-24.

[11] 2 Kings 1:9-12.

[12] Gen. 38:6-10.

[13] Judg. 15:1-15; 16:27-30.

[14] Judg. 14:11-19.

[15] Gen. 19:24-26.

[16] Gen. 3:16.

[17] Num. 16:41-49.

[18] Num. 31:1-18.

[19] Exod. 19:12; 21:15-17; 22:18-24; 31:14-15; 35:2; Lev. 20:9-21; 21:9; 24:10-16; Num. 1:48-51; Deut. 17:12; 18:20-22; 21:18-21; 22:20-27.

[20] John Howard Yoder, Christian Attitudes to War, Peace, and Revolution, ed. Theodore J. Koontz and Andy Alexis-Baker (Brazos Press, 2009), 5974, Kindle.

[21] John Howard Yoder, The Original Revolution: Essays on Christian Pacifism, Revised Edition (Herald Press, 2012), 1129, Kindle.

[22] John Dear, The God of Peace: Toward a Theology of Nonviolence (Eugene, OR: Wipf and Stock Publishers, 2005), 34.

[23] Jean Lasserre, War and the Gospel (Eugene, OR: Wipf and Stock Publishers, 1998), 60.

[24] Eric A. Seibert, The Violence of Scripture: Overcoming the Old Testament's Troubling Legacy (Fortress Press, 2012), 616, Kindle.

[25] Walter Wink, The Powers That Be: Theology for a New Millennium (New York: Galilee Doubleday, 1998), 84.

[26] Christopher J. H. Wright, The God I Don't Understand: Reflections on Tough Questions of Faith (Zondervan, 2009), 1267, Kindle.

[27] Richard Dawkins, The God Delusion Reprint Edition (Mariner Books, 2008), 581, Kindle.

[28] Ibid., 3884.

[29] Brendan Powell Smith, “Interview: The Brick Testament’s Reverend Brendan Powell Smith!” posted June 6, 2008 at https://nexuszine.wordpress.com/2008/06/06/interview-the-brick-testaments-reverend-brendan-powell-smith/.

[30] Thomas Paine, The Age of Reason.