I heard a radio discussion about people who use the violence in the Old Testament as an excuse for terrible acts of abuse. As we know, it’s also true that the violent acts done by and on behalf of God, and recorded in our Holy Book, are a rich source of material for atheists wishing to ascribe to Christianity a deep-seated immorality and malevolence.
I wanted to make this the subject of a small group meeting, and I wanted to start by playing this ten minute broadcast, but when I started my preparations, I couldn’t find the programme.
What I found instead was a different, and wonderful, podcast from Ancient Faith Radio, in which Father Thomas Hopko, an Orthodox Christian, talked about many aspects of Old Testament violence, and gave it a context and meaning that I had never heard before. As this is one aspect of God’s word that I have struggled to understand for many years, I am very encouraged, and grateful to Fr. Tom for his insights.
You can listen to the entire podcast, which is just under an hour long, or read a transcript, here, but below I have written an abridged version. 99% of the words are Fr. Tom’s, while I have shuffled the order sightly, and provided section titles. If what you read below interests you, then I encourage you to listen to or read the original which has far more depth and detail.
The Violence of Man
We can speak of the kinds of violence that we find in the Bible. First of all, there’s the violence and the murdering that comes simply from sin. Human beings are sinful, and they kill each other. And the very beginning of the Bible is that. Cain kills Abel. That’s how humanity starts. You have Adam and Eve apostatizing, rebelling against God, refusing to love God by keeping his commandments, listening to the devil, being cast out of paradise, and then all the enmity and the strife and the hostility enters the human race, the human beings are given over unto death in enslavement to the earth, and then Cain kills Abel, one kills the other.
Now, in the Old Testament, you also have violence and killing done as a kind of vindication by human beings against evils done to them. Like, for example, in Genesis 34, when Simon and Levi kill Shechem and they kill all the males in the land and they plunder the whole city and they take all the women and the children and everything because Shechem has violated their sister Dinah. You return the evils by evils in order to vindicate your righteousness against the unrighteousness of those who harmed you.
The Violence of God
Then you have another issue in the Old Testament Scriptures to deal with, and we’ll see how the New Testament resolves all this, but God himself does acts of violence.
A Response to Sin
And God said to Noah, “I have determined to make an end of all flesh, for the earth is filled with violence through them. Behold, I will destroy the earth.” And then he tells him to make this ark, which is a prefiguration of the holy Church. That’s what the New Testament Scriptures say clearly, in the letter of Peter, that Noah’s ark prefigures baptism and the ark of salvation is the Church.
The point we want to see here is that you have violence, and then what happens is God acts pretty violently. So that’s another thing that you have in the Hebrew Scriptures and in the Bible. When people sin against God and do evil, God renders evils to the people. He destroys them. So in the time of Noah, he just drowned everybody.
An Act of Rescue
Then you have that wonderful statement in the fourteenth chapter of Exodus, where the Lord through Moses says to the people, “Listen, have faith, stand firm, be quiet, be still, I will fight for you. I will fight for you, and this very day, you will see the Egyptians perish before your very eyes. I will save you. I will rescue you. I will deliver you.” And in the Old Testament, that meant a violent act of salvation in, literally, killing the enemies. And God is killing the enemies all the time in the Old Testament. That’s what he’s doing day and night, so to speak, and some people are scandalized by it, but the Bible reader, in the light of Jesus Christ, would say, “What was God to do? How else was he going to proceed? He’s dealing with a violent world where people are killing each other all the time, and in the names of their gods they’re killing each other.”
Evidence of His Power
Now, in the Passover exodus story, eight times you have that expression with these plagues that God says, “I am doing this that you may know that I am God, that you may know that I am your God, that the nations and the Egyptians may know that I reign over all creation, and that you may know that I am the only God that there is.” So the violence in the Old Testament and the violence of God himself against his enemies—because those people who are enemies of Israel, they are enemies of him—here we should see that the warfare in the Old Testament is not so much, so to speak, a warfare between peoples. It’s a warfare, actually, between gods. It’s the one true and living God fighting against all the false gods and all those who are evilly inspired into idolatry by those false gods, by the powers of evil, by the demons.
Evidence is Needed
There’s a great Protestant thinker, a theologian named Karl Bart, who said, “Until God can establish his power over the false gods, until he can show that he can kill and make alive, that he can cast down, that he can raise up, and that he is the God of gods and the Lord of lords, then God cannot really show mercy.” Because if he would show mercy without showing his power, people would think that he didn’t have the power, and that’s certainly a teaching of the Old Testament. God has to establish his power, and the way you establish your power is by killing your enemies. Sadly, that’s the truth.
An Act of Cleansing
But the most amazing thing is that God says to his own people in the Old Testament Scripture, “I am against you. I am against you, because you are trusting in horses. You think you can manipulate me. You think that because I told you you are my people that you can do whatever you want and you can be unrighteous and sinful and break that Law and not keep the commandments and not keep the Sabbath or anything else.”
So here you have the violence of God, which is needed, first of all, to preserve his people from their mortal enemies on earth and then at the same time to preserve the righteousness of his people by even showing his wrath and anger against them.
So you find all of this in the Scriptures, all this kind of evil and murder and going-on, and it’s there all the time.
The Power and the Mercy
Now, if that were the last word, then we would really have a scandal on our hands, but for Christianity that is not the last word, as we will see in a second and as we already know, I hope. In Jesus Christ, you do not have that any more. You have a radical reversal of God’s activity, because once he has established his power, then he can send his Son to show mercy and to show what the power of God really is, which is the power of truth, the power of righteousness, the power of love, which is absolutely, fully, completely, and totally revealed in the Cross of Christ and in the crucified Messiah.
Because in the Bible, all of this is done, Orthodox Christians would believe and Bible readers who read the whole Bible would believe, all this violence was done so that God’s fidelity could remain, so that his soteriological plan could be completed, which means his plan for saving the world, for sending Christ, for redeeming, for forgiving.
What people have to realize is we are all God’s enemies in some way. Jews and Gentiles, whoever we are, we are those who are in need of the mercy of God, and the Gospel of God in Jesus is he shows mercy on all.
Violence Against God
Christ sheds his blood on the Cross for everyone that Yahweh killed in the Old Testament. Everyone that was killed in the Old Testament in any way, whether it was Jephthah’s daughter who had to be sacrificed because he made a vow, whether it’s that concubine who was chopped up into twelve parts and sent through Israel, whether it’s the ravishing of the young maidens outside Sodom and Gomorrah and in other places in the Bible, whether it’s Cain killing Abel, whatever it is—all those murders, all that violence—that is all subsumed in the flesh of Christ on the Cross, and he endures it all. And it is God Almighty that is in human flesh that’s enduring it in order to have mercy on all.
Now here I would say this very clearly: if God did not so love the world that he sent his only-begotten Son, that those who believe in him would not perish, and if he did not give the opportunity for everyone to repent, and if the final judgment, when the Lord appears in glory, is not the moment of truth when anyone can finally repent of all their ignorances and their evils, their passions and their crimes, and if God did not die for everyone and shed his blood for everyone without exception, then we would have real problems with the murders of the Old Testament. All that violence would be nothing but scandalous violence. But the scandal for Christians, the scandal of the Cross replaces, so to speak, heals all the violence of men, even the violence of God himself that he had to perpetrate in the Old Testament in order for his plan to be completed for the Messiah to come.
Conclusion – Eternal Violence
Now, will God kill and destroy his enemies, ultimately, in the coming kingdom? Well, the ancient Christian scriptural answer is no. He will have mercy on everybody. But still, people may not accept that mercy, and then God’s love and his truth and his righteousness and his blood will torment them, and they will be tormented forever and ever if they blaspheme the Holy Spirit for ever and ever. The demons and the evil people who love the demons and hate God, they will suffer from the mercy of God forever, and that’s the fire of hell. But God is no longer destroying. God is no longer destroying. People are destroying themselves by opposing the righteousness of God.
So we read about the violence and the murder and the killing and the violence of God and the violence of people and the sinful violence and the unrighteous violence, but then the necessary violence that is necessary for God’s plan to be completed, we read about all this in the Old Testament. We see it fulfilled in the non-violent Christ, who as a Lamb is led to the slaughter and opens not his mouth, who is denied justice, who takes upon himself the sin of the world, and who dies for all those for all those who have died in any way, and he dies even for those whom God himself has killed in the Old Testament, because the final word does not belong to death. The final word does not belong to destruction. The final word belongs to mercy and forgiveness. The final word belongs to resurrection and life. The final word belongs to the peace of God, not the violence of God.
So let’s think about these things, but let’s know for sure that all that violence of old was necessary to produce the Christ, and then the Christ comes and takes the violence upon himself and forgives everyone everything. And that’s the teaching of the Gospel. And the victory of God ultimately is one when his Son dies the most violent, degrading, horrible death on the Cross. So for Christians, we preach Christ crucified, scandal to Jews, folly to Gentiles, but the wisdom and the power, the ultimate wisdom and the ultimate power, of God Almighty himself.