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.

Also, when I am done with this series of posts, I will be publishing them as a book. If you want a free digital copy of this book when it comes out, make sure you have subscribed to my email newsletter.


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