Is God Lying about Violence in the Old Testament?

old testament violenceI have been saying in my posts on the violence of God that God inspired the biblical writers to say that He told them to do the violent things they did, even though He did not. The reason God did this was to take their sin upon Himself. Just as Jesus became sin for us (2 Cor 5:21), so God became sin for Israel. This doesn’t mean God became guilty, nor does it mean that God became a sinner. It simply means that God took their guilt upon Himself just as Jesus did upon the cross. To read more about this line of thought, see the list of posts at the bottom of this article.

One of the possible objections to this view is that it makes God out to be a liar.

Yet we know that God does not lie.

So how can God inspire biblical authors to write that He commanded Israel to do things that He did not actually command them to do? I believe it is because that although God is not guilty for these things, nor did He want them to happen, He nevertheless views Himself as ultimately responsible for what goes on in this world. Why? Because He created a world where such sin and horror was possible.

In a way, God truly is guilty. It is not that He sins or is a sinner, but He made a world where horrible sin and nightmarish tragedy was possible. So when the nightmare began, God took the blame, and through divine responsibility, took it upon Himself to make the nightmare stop. Ultimately, God pled guilty for the sins of the world, and paid the penalty on the cross by dying a sinner’s death. One of my favorite theologians put it this way: Jesus “dies as a criminal, under the curse of the Law—as if to say, ‘Look, I’m as guilty as you are in this situation because I set it up in the first place; let’s just forget about blame and get on with the party;” (Capon, Mystery of Christ34). 

And this actually reveals the primary problem with all other theories about the violence of God in the Old Testament.

In previous posts we surveyed various proposals about how to understand the violent portrayals of God in the Old Testament in light of Jesus Christ. All of those proposals were rejected for various reasons, but the main problem with all those views is this: they all try to get God off the hook. They all try to wash God’s hands of evil. They all try to explain why a good God can command such horrible things and still be good.

The problem, of course, is that in Scripture God never tries to get Himself off the hook. To the contrary, if He inspired Scripture to contain the information it does, God seems to go out of His way to put Himself on the hook. God seems intent in Scripture on laying the blame for all the sin and violence of the world directly at His own feet.

bloody hands of God
These are the hands of God.

Over and over in Scripture, God seems to be saying, “Look at my hands! They are bloody! Now stop trying to wash them clean!” It is as if God is Lady MacBeth, but we are the ones trying to wash His hands: “Out, damned spot! Out, I say! …What! will these hands ne’er be clean? …Here’s the smell of the blood still: all the perfumes of Arabia will not sweeten this little hand. Oh! oh! oh!” And with every theory we throw at the bloodstained hands of God in an attempt the wipe them clean, the stain of blood only grows deeper and darker.

Robert Farrar Capon insightfully wrote that “If God seems to be in no hurry to make the problem of evil go away, maybe we shouldn’t be, either. Maybe our compulsion to wash God’s hands for him is a service he doesn’t appreciate. Maybe …evil is where we meet God” (Capon, The Romance of the Word, 170). Could it be that our feeble attempts to wash God’s hands of evil seem so ineffective because the deeper we scrub, the darker His bloodstained hands become? The more evil we try to remove from God’s hands, the more evil He seems to scoop up with them.

It is frustrating and embarrassing for us, but maybe this is exactly the way God wants it.

Christians often go to great length to wash the hands of God, but why do we try so hard to do this when God seems to be doing the exact opposite?

God does not run from evil; He runs into it. God does not keep distance between Himself and wickedness; He gets so close to it that sometimes it is difficult to discern the difference between God and evil. So if God jumps right into the evil and wickedness of the world, it is impossible for us to separate Him from it. 

When God inspired the human authors to write that He was commanding them to do the violent actions which they had already set out to do in their hearts, God was not being deceptive. He was taking responsibility for the way the world had gone. Though He was not guilty, He took the guilt. Though He is not a sinner, He took the sin.

God did this partly because of His great love for us. He knew that if He let the sin and guilt remain upon us, it would destroy us and He would never have the relationship with us that He so desires. So God took the blame, took the fall, and became sin for us, so that we might be His righteousness in the world. It is not deceptive. It is pure beauty, light, and love.

God of the Old Testament and JesusThis post is part of my ongoing series on how to understand the violence of God in the Old Testament. Specifically, I am trying to answer this question:

How can a God who says "Love your enemies" (Matthew 5:44) be the same God who instructs His people in the Old Testament to kill their enemies?

To see what I am arguing so far, click here.

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  1. says

    Thanks for the post. Yes I think k you’re onto something here. Some of the problems lie with western notions of God as he is often depicted piously in medieval art. There’s a quote from the movie Shutter Island that I find intriguing: “”God’s gift…His violence…God loves violence…Why else would there be so much of it? It’s in us. It comes out of us. It is what we do more naturally than we breathe. We wage war. We burn sacrifices. We pillage and tear at the flesh of our brothers. We fill great fields with our stinking dead. And why? To show Him that we’ve learned from His example…God gives us earthquakes, hurricanes, tornadoes. He gives us mountains that spew fire onto our heads. Oceans that swallow ships. He gives us nature, and nature is a smiling killer. He gives us disease so that in our death we believe He gave us orifices only so that we could feel our life bleed out of them. He gave us lust and fury and greed and our filthy hearts. So that we could wage violence in His honor. There is no moral order as pure as this storm we’ve just seen. There is no moral order at all. There is only this – can my violence conquer yours.” It’s not scripture but it’s a thought… God does conquer us one way or another, either with his son or without him (the full force of violence).

  2. Guest says

    Interesting that you should mention open theism, as Greg Boyd, a well known open theist, seems to be coming to similar conclusions here with what he is calling a ‘cruciform dynamic’. 😛

  3. says

    Interesting that you should mention open theism, as Greg Boyd, a well
    known open theist, seems to be coming to similar conclusions here with
    what he is calling a ‘cruciform dynamic’. I find the whole concept quite interesting indeed!

    • says

      Hmm. Cruciform dynamic. I have heard of cruciform theology, and really like where it is headed, but have not heard of the cruciform dynamic. It is probably something similar. Has Boyd written a book about this? I have read some of books but do not recall reading about this.

      • says

        Hey Jeremy, he has an ongoing blog series at his reknew website which are functioning as primers for his upcoming book on this. So, you might want to read those. I think you’ve put it much simpler, to be honest, but he does get into nitty gritties a lot more. Should be an interesting book!

        I’m on the fence on this one at the moment, but do think that there is a case to be made for it in certain biblical instances, but perhaps not all. What I do know is that there is certainly space to discuss God’s justice and judgements in our theology, but it seems that people don’t want to discuss those topics because it’s not ‘nice’ and generally, people want a nice God, not a real one. If you see what I mean… 😛 Yet, I see a lot of discussion around God’s fierce judgement in early church writings, and quite frankly when I read some of them I feel that ‘burning inside’ which the disciples spoke about on the road to Emmaus. In other words, I’m pretty sure there’s stuff there that we must take into account, we’ve just got to figure out the ideas / presuppositions / and even heart issues that prevent us from accepting them.

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