Blog #41 – Why Does God Command Violence in the Old Testament?

By John Cline
As we have been preaching our way through the Books of Exodus through to Numbers, the question has to be asked, “Why does God command violence in the Old Testament?” On the ChurchLeaders.com website, writer Jefferson Bethke interviews Dr. N.T. Wright on this issue. In part, here is their exchange:
Bethke: I know the “old vengeful God in the Old Testament and nice, loving hippie-like Jesus in the New Testament” is actually a really horrible reading and understanding of the scripture. A closer reading shows these as caricatures and a massive false dichotomy. God in the Old Testament has numerous examples of mercy, grace and love, while Jesus also has some very harsh things to say. But, even with that said, it does seem like an inconsistency of character when comparing the Old Testament to the New Testament. Why is that?
Wright: The question arises because we all tend to assume that the Bible is to be read ‘in the flat’ as simply giving ‘revelation’ about God, the world, humans, etc. Once you realize it is a story, a lot of this looks different. And once you realize—which only comes with the cross of the Messiah—just what an appalling mess the world was actually in, everything looks completely different. God the creator is not vengeful; he is simply utterly and implacably determined to bring heaven and earth together forever, and for that to be even thinkable, evil itself needs to be eradicated. It is we, with our fear of being told off or found out, who resent the fact that God puts his finger on every aspect of evil within us and without, and who therefore blame God for being ‘nasty’ when in fact, like a doctor refusing to tolerate the slightest trace of the disease, he is determined to complete the rescue operation for the whole world, leaving no trace of corruption or decay.
Bethke: What about specific examples of God commanding violence on large scales? If God is like Jesus, and always has been like Jesus, then how is this consistent with Jesus’ teachings in the Sermon on the Mount? The Cross seems to show that evil loses through self-giving love and sacrifice (loving enemies). I understand Israel needing to survive as a nation as a reason for commanded violence, but wondering if there’s more.
Wright: This is of course one of the largest and most complex questions. Yes: With the cross we see not only that love wins, but that God takes the pain and shame of the world ultimately upon himself. The previous answer is part of a pointer, but as with many other aspects of the Hebrew scriptures, there is a deep and necessary ambiguity built into it all. The ambiguity is necessary because when humans rebelled, God didn’t write them out of the story but chose a human family to work through to rescue the world—recognizing that this family, being themselves part of the problem as well as the solution-bearers, would mess things up in all sorts of ways. God is thus working ‘against the grain’ of Israel’s natural (Adamic) tendency in order to work ‘with the grain’ of the world-rescuing project. This comes out again and again. Once more, this becomes much less problematic once we stop seeing the Bible ‘in the flat,’ as though one should be able to read off the same point from any moment in the story.
Bethke: If a young 21st-century Christian were to ask you how they should see The Law, or Torah, what would you say? How do we know which parts to follow as is and which ones to reinterpret and restructure through Jesus?
Wright: The WHOLE of the Hebrew scriptures has to be read through the lens of the messianic and God-unveiling events concerning Jesus. If we reduce it to ‘we take these bits and leave those bits,’ we are already distorting the scriptures into a kind of rule-book or doctrine-book, which we might find superficially easier but which is not what we actually have. Again, Mark 4, Luke 24, Galatians 3, etc. come to mind as vital passages for wrestling with all this. And don’t be surprised if you end up in Romans 7 as well.
Bethke: Why do you think we have such a hard time seeing the Bible as one epic narrative rather than an encyclopedia of sorts? And if you could summarize the story from Genesis to Revelation in a few sentences, how would you say it?
Wright: Paul does it in Ephesians 1.10: From the very beginning, the creator’s plan was and is to sum up all things in the Messiah, things in heaven and things on earth. God made humans to be the stewards of creation so that he himself, in the person of his son, might be the Steward par excellence. When humans rebelled, God called Israel to be the people of covenant rescue, so that he might himself, in the person of his son, be the Covenant Rescuer. Part of our problem is that this is a very Jewish story, and much of the church, over the years, has resisted that and tried to turn the whole thing into a Hellenistic ‘system.’
So, why does God command violence in the Old Testament? God is like a doctor refusing to tolerate the slightest trace of the disease: he is determined to complete the rescue operation for the whole world, leaving no trace of corruption or decay. This is because his wider plan involves salvation, and that is where the history of the Jewish nation comes in, and then, Jesus our Messiah and Saviour.
0 replies

Leave a Reply

Want to join the discussion?
Feel free to contribute!

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *