Common Solutions to the Problem of Violence in the Old Testament

As I try to work my way toward developing a solution to the problem of violence in the Old Testament, I thought it would be good to briefly summarize some of the common ways of dealing with divine violence in the Hebrew Scriptures.

Violence in Old Testament

Certainly, these are not ALL the solutions, but just the three most popular. But even most of the alternative solutions are similar to one of these three. Anyway, you may have guessed by now that I am not comfortable (or satisfied) with any of these three popular solutions. I am not certain that my own solution will be satisfying either, but that is why I am writing these posts… to flesh out the idea that is rumbling around in my head and see if it can fit within Scripture and theology.

So, here are the three most popular solutions to the problem of divine commands for mass murder in the Old Testament.

1. God is God and Can Do What He Wants

The first solutions is surprisingly popular among many Christians today, especially those who highly value the “sovereignty of God.” They say something like this: “God is God and He can do what He wants.”

This is the basic view of people who believe that God sends hurricanes, earthquakes, and tsunamis on cities, and diseases and pestilences on people to punish them.

The strength of this view is that it allows a straightforward reading of Scripture and allows you to easily affirm the full inerrancy of Scripture.

The problems, however, are monstrous. Literally. In my opinion, this view turns God into a monster. I mean really, what would you think of a god who says, “Even though it is wrong for you to murder, torture, rape, kill, and slaughter, I can do it, because I am god.”  Is this really the god you want to worship? Is this really the god depicted in the Bible?

More importantly, is this really the God revealed in Jesus Christ?

No. If we are going to be honest with God, honest with Scripture, and honest about Jesus, we cannot simply say “God can do whatever He wants because He is God.”

While this may be true for a monstrous god, it is not true of our God, or of the God revealed in Jesus Christ. God does not behave this way. God is more loving, just, kind, patient, forgiving, merciful, and gracious than any human being. It is simply nonsense to say, “God can do what appears to be evil, but it is not really evil because He is God.”

Maybe blasphemy is too strong a word, but this view is extremely problematic and illogical, and to me, it maligns the character of God and calls into question the goodness, grace, and mercy of Jesus Christ.

Which leads naturally into the second (but related) view on how to handle divine violence in the Old Testament.

2. God is Evil

The second solution is to say that the Old Testament accurately depicts God, and since the God of the Old Testament appears to be so radically different than the God revealed in Jesus Christ, the only logical conclusion is that they are two different Gods. The God of the Old Testament is evil, and the God revealed in Jesus Christ is good and loving.

Bible Kill CountThis theory is not as popular today as it once was, but it was a common view held by many during the first centuries of the church (e.g., the Gnostics held this view), and was rightly condemned as heresy by many of the early church leaders.

My conviction is that the entire Bible is the inspired and inerrant Word of God, and we must not attempt to escape the problem of divine violence in the Old Testament by divorcing Him from the God revealed in Jesus Christ.

Why not? For many reasons, but primarily because Jesus indicates over and over and He is the same as the God revealed in the Hebrew Scriptures. He and the Father are one. He was with God in the beginning. If you have seen Jesus, you have seen the Father. Numerous New Testament authors also state this fact.

If we want to divorce Jesus from the God of the Old Testament, then while we may solve one problem of how to deal with the God in the Old Testament, we introduce dozens of larger problems of how to understand most of the New Testament.

So just as with solution #1, this second solution is not a solution either.

3. The Old Testament is Wrong

This third suggested solution for the problem of divine violence in the Old Testament is simply to say that the Bible is wrong. That is, the Old Testament is full of errors.

This is, by far, the most popular solution today. It has been adopted by a large percentage of Christians, and is, I admit, the most attractive option of the three.

I will also admit that if my theological hypothesis is wrong (which I will be unfolding over the next several posts), I can easily see myself falling into this category, or at least some version of it.

Honestly, I would rather believe that the Bible is full of errors than believe that the Old Testament depicts a blood-thirsty, vengeful, God of war and carnage that is the same as the God revealed in Jesus Christ. If I cannot get Jesus and the God of the Old Testament to fit together in a coherent way which maintains the love, grace, and mercy of God, then I may find myself within the ranks of those who simply write off much of the Old Testament as hopelessly full of errors.

But I don’t think I need to go there. At least, not yet…

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. picnicfun says

    I’ve just come across this post while looking at others on this subject. Reading this because of thought provoking comments by an atheist classmate of mine. This is an area I’ve paid no attention to because I don’t care as a rule. We have enough man-made evil right now to worry about.
    The first time I ever thought about this area was when a friend of mine years ago brought up Isaiah 45:7 about the Lord creating both good and evil. The term “evil” in original language is what we’d expect it to be.
    So in reviewing your post and giving this thought from my own perspective, the most disturbing possibility is #2. God Himself is significantly evil. His behavior at times modeling what we read about the ancient Greek and Roman gods. Contrary to the narrative he’s put forward, he is petty, malicious, disdainful of humans not worshipping of him. This view has some overlap in the Book of Job once you knock aside the apologists who don’t want to read the narrative and absorb Job’s points of view. “You are like a blood thirsty soldier gone mad with hate using me for target practice”. Also Job 23:16-17 where Job says its God he fears, not the darkness. Job speaks of wishing you could arrest God, take him to court, put him on trial. But you can’t because he’s too powerful to be taken. Fits that low-brow Christian argument God can do whatever he wants because he’s God. Reminds me of Chris Rock in “Head of State” where he and others say “we’re the government. We can do anything.” What citizens can’t legally do, we can because we’re the government.
    Here is one of many problems. If God is evil to any degree there’s nothing we can do about it as we have no “Anti-God weapon”, no anti-God handcuffs, to restrain him. We’re stuck. Not a positive feeling, is it?

    • says

      Great point! If God is evil, there is nothing we can do to defend ourselves against him.

      Thankfully, the God revealed in Jesus Christ is not evil in any way. He is light and love, and in Him there is no darkness or evil of any kind.

  2. Kevin says

    I think there are some other considerations as well. Let’s presume a young earth (I don’t, and so my numbers make God look even more patient) and say that humanity has been around for 10k years. In that time period he wiped out significant numbers of humans twice. We do that on a smaller scale once or twice a decade and larger scales once or twice a century. We did 100x times what God is charged with in the last century alone. Kettle, meet pot, in other words.

    The second one is that of God being petty. But think about it. God freed the Israelites from slavery in Egypt and gave them the promised land. But in between when the land was delivered and the final exile there was maybe 100 years out of 1,000 where they were a Yahwehistic nation. That was the time during David’s reign, somewhat during Solomon and a few kings here and there. So there are 800-900 years of the Israelites flipping off God during which time He continuously says “I’m warning you. I’m warning you. I’m warning you.” Then He says “Fine, have it your way” and then we have the audacity to call him capricious.

    The third one is, maybe the Canaanites deserved it. If one reads through the things that the Canaanites did and doesn’t get sick to the stomach lacks any kind of discernible morality. Why does God use violence? Because we don’t naturally respond to God’s love. If God doesn’t destroy the worst of the offenders there is the very real possibility of unimaginable violence. We have some very good recent examples of what happens when violent people are allowed to go about as they wish.

    So does God use violence? Yes, the Bible is full of examples. Does that make God evil? To answer that we need to ask the question of “why did He use violence?” The Pentateuch is clear about the character of people both for the flood and the conquest. They were filled with an evil to the point where there was only one solution left.

    • says

      Yes, the Bible is full of examples of divine violence. The question however, is this: “Is the Bible really telling us that God did these acts of violence, or is it teaching something else instead?” I think it is something else, which I will explain in future posts…

  3. Kevin says

    … or also “Is the Bible teaching us something through God’s acts of violence?” :-) Either way, I will be looking forward to reading your future posts.

    FTR, I come at this having been born, raised and educated in the Mennonite faith, where as a part of the curriculum they handed out conscientious objector forms. While I am quite thankful for the heritage I was brought up in I always had difficulty reconciling the binary-form Pacifism of the Mennonites with the OT. It is largely resolved in my mind, but I am always open to being wrong and I look forward to reading through how you reconcile the problem of violence.

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