Not long ago, a young woman came to my office. She was quite troubled. “I don’t understand,” she said. “My granny told me to take a Bible class—she thought it might help me sort out some things in my life. But I’ve been reading the Old Testament these past couple of weeks, and I just don’t see how it can help me. I mean, has she read it? There is some pretty shocking stuff in there.”
The young woman’s reaction is understandable. Old Testament texts are hardly the stuff of polite conversation, rife as they are with stories about sexual improprieties, political scheming, pagan worship, violence, and bloodshed. Far from what we might expect of sacred Scripture, the Old Testament is quite candid about the depravity of the human heart and the immoral behavior it provokes. Even great heroes of the faith such as Abraham, Moses, and David are presented as deeply flawed and prone to sin.
More problematic than the conduct of Bible characters, however, are the disturbing images of God we find in parts of the Old Testament. At times, the Old Testament portrays a God who seems judgmental, vengeful, and capricious, sanctioning or even instigating excessive violence. One has only to think of the conquest recorded in Joshua and God’s command to “utterly destroy” the Canaanite nations (Deut. 7:2; 20:17). Or descriptions of God unleashing disease and death among his own people (Num. 21:6; 2 Sam. 6:7; Jer. 21:3-7). Or the psalmists’ prayers to God as the great Avenger who curses our enemies and heaps evil upon those who seek our downfall (Ps. 69:22-28; 109:8-15).
Television personality Steve Allen summarized the problem succinctly: “I was taught that Christians should not hate others and that we should try to love everyone, including even our enemies. Why, then, did God not do so in the Old Testament times?” (Steve Allen on the Bible, Religion, and Morality, p. 309).
An Unsettling Portrait
For many, the portrait of God found in these texts is so unsettling that they bypass the Old Testament and head straight for the New in search of a more comforting and appealing picture of God in the stories about Jesus.
This shortcut in our biblical reflection on God, however, is a strategy fraught with problems. Skipping ahead to the New Testament is like starting a novel two-thirds of the way through. Without a clear understanding of the characters, the conflict, and the plot, the rest of the story doesn't make much sense and is easily misunderstood.
Such is the case with the Bible. Without the Old Testament, we may learn that Jesus died for our sins, but we may not understand why Jesus died. We may not understand what his death means or how his death bears witness to God and God’s love for us.
Moreover, while it is common for people to think of Jesus as a maverick, the leader of a radical new movement, the truth is that Jesus’ teachings and values are often reiterations of Old Testament piety. Jesus’ exhortation “Love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your mind and with all your strength. . . . Love your neighbor as yourself,” for instance, comes directly from the Old Testament law (Mark 12:30-31; cf. Deut. 6:4, 5; Lev. 19:18). Jesus’ concern for the lowest and the least, the widow and the orphan, are values deeply entrenched in the law and the prophets. And his very mission is an extension, a climax, of God’s redemptive work in and through Israel for the sake of God’s world.
In others words, if we want to know who Jesus is and what Jesus would do, we would do well to immerse ourselves in the worldview of the Old Testament.
This was certainly the conclusion of the early church. Thus, when Marcion, a second-century bishop, jettisoned the Old Testament on the grounds that the teachings of Jesus were incompatible with the Old Testament God, the church fathers declared his theology heretical and affirmed unequivocally the unity of the Old and New Testament, which together bear witness to the one true God, the Creator and Redeemer of the world.
This is not to say that early interpreters were oblivious to the disturbing images of God in the Old Testament. Many found them just as challenging as we do. But they also believed that more is lost by abandoning the Old Testament than is gained. Assuming, then, the value of the Old Testament, what do we do with passages that portray God in ways that seem scandalous?
No Easy Answers
Unfortunately, there are no easy or satisfying answers to this question. The truth is that there are indeed troubling images of God in the Old Testament, troubling not just because they violate our moral sensibilities but because of the way these images have been used to justify violence and brutality in Christian history. Too often, Christians have read violent Old Testament texts as a call to “smite the enemy” in God’s name, spreading hate rather than love. Given this history, it is fitting, as we consider how to make sense of these texts, to acknowledge our own discomfort with them and to grieve over the violence they have been used to sanction.
On a more exegetical level, there are resources and interpretive approaches within the Reformed tradition that can lend perspective and depth to our understanding of these troubling texts. For instance, while there is no denying that in the Old Testament, God is sometimes associated with aggression and violence, this isn’t the only or even the dominant testimony about God.
Rather, the Old Testament writers affirmed again and again throughout Israel’s history that the Lord, the God of Israel, is “the compassionate and gracious God, slow to anger, abounding in steadfast love and faithfulness” (Ex. 34:6; see also Num. 14:18; Ps. 86:15; 103:8; 145:8; Joel 2:13; Jon. 4:2; Neh. 9:17). This core testimony provides an important counterbalance to the more difficult texts about God, reminding us that when we take into consideration the larger context, the overwhelming testimony of the Old Testament is that God is good (Ps. 119:68).
Another important consideration when reading difficult Old Testament texts about God is what John Calvin described as “divine accommodation.” According to Calvin, God accommodates himself to our limited moral and rational capacities, revealing himself in the context of our cultural realities in ways that we can recognize, understand, and accept.
The prime example is Moses’ teaching on divorce (Deut. 24:1-4), which Jesus interprets as a concession to the people’s hardness of heart (Matt. 19:3-9; Mark 10:2-9). According to Calvin, “[God] does not show Himself subject to change. Rather, He has accommodated Himself to men’s [sic] capacity, which is varied and changeable” (Institutes 2.11.13).
The point is that though God does not change, how God reveals himself to us can change. This notion of divine accommodation is particularly helpful in thinking about Old Testament texts that associate God with violence. The ancient Near East was a warring culture, and commitment to the utter destruction of one’s enemies is solidly attested. We might say, then, that God allows Israel, in the centuries before Christ, to imagine and experience God as a fierce and mighty warrior who assumes the posture and practices characteristic of warrior gods in the ancient Near East—even if, ultimately, God doesn’t sanction the brutality and violence Israel came to associate with this image.
It may be helpful to note here that in many of the places where violence is associated with God in the Old Testament, God, as the divine warrior, is battling the forces of evil and injustice, fighting on behalf of the weak, the marginalized, and the oppressed. This is particularly true in the psalms.
Consider, for example, Psalm 58 where the wicked are depicted as powerful rulers who devise injustice and mete out violence. The psalmist prays that God would avenge the victims of this injustice and put an end to their oppression by sweeping away the wicked. It is precisely when God acts powerfully against the wicked, says the psalmist, that “people will say . . . ‘Surely there is a God who judges the earth’” (Ps. 58:11b). In other words, for the psalmist, God demonstrates that he is a God of righteousness and justice by overthrowing the powerful for the sake of the powerless.
God’s warring, then, is not fickle or capricious, nor is it politically or ethnically motived, as is much of the violence perpetuated by human hands. Instead, it is a reflection of God’s decisive judgment against evil, evident in the fact that God acts even against his own people when they exploit the poor and fail to care for the widow and orphan (Isa. 5:8-30; Jer. 22:13-19).
Furthermore, it is useful to keep in mind that the Old Testament writers employed the literary conventions, codes, and practices of the ancient Near East when compiling and writing the words of Scripture. Attending to these conventions and codes is an important exegetical practice that can help us better hear the Old Testament texts as ancient Israel and the surrounding nations would have heard them.
For instance, battle reports in the ancient Near East were often characterized by hyperbole. Like modern-day fishing stories, they were accounts full of bravado, written to fulfill a particular rhetorical function and designed to celebrate a leader’s military prowess and bolster his political capital.
The Merneptah Stele (ca. 1207 b.c.), boasts, “Israel is wasted, his seed is not,” suggesting the total conquest and complete eradication of the Israelites by Egypt in the 13th century b.c. Clearly, the Stele overstates the case, as the southern kingdom of Israel continued to exist until the sixth century b.c.
The fact that the Old Testament and the book of Joshua itself make contradictory claims about Israel’s success in eradicating the Canaanite nations suggests that hyperbole also characterizes the biblical texts that describe the conquest. Thus, while Joshua 11:12-23 indicates that Israel rid the land of the Canaanites, Joshua 13:1-5 and Judges 3:1-6 list nations that the tribes of Israel were not able to cast out of the land. What’s more, individuals of Canaanite heritage show up regularly in narratives of Israel’s history (see 1 Sam. 7:14; 26:6; 2 Sam. 11:3), clearly indicating that they were not completely eradicated as Joshua 11:12-23 suggests.
Knowing that the Old Testament contains these contradictory reports about the conquest gives us good reason to believe that we are dealing with battle reports whose primary objective is to celebrate God’s military power and might on behalf of the small and seemingly insignificant tribal peoples of Israel.
Israel’s Role in Redemptive History
Finally, as we consider these difficult texts, it is important that we recognize the missiological uniqueness of Israel’s role in redemptive history. According to the Old Testament, God allowed and even sanctioned violence at times to ensure the survival and religious purity of the nation through whom the Savior of the world would come.
Such violence, however, was for a specific purpose and time in history. As such, it does not sanction the use of violence today. While we share with Israel the common identity of being the people of God, we are also post-resurrection Christians, and our calling in God’s redemptive plan is different from theirs.
Ours is the task of bearing witness to Jesus, the Savior who has come into the world to bring about a kingdom of peace and justice and righteousness and whose coming again we eagerly await. This task we do most effectively not through acts of violence but by living out kingdom values here and now, which include loving our enemies and praying for those who persecute us (Matt. 5:44).
In the end, while violent portrayals of God do scandalize us, the real scandal of the Old Testament is not these troubling images but rather God’s long-suffering and steadfast love for us. That the Holy and Almighty God, Creator and Redeemer of the world, would continue to pursue us in spite of the fact that we spurn him time and time again is a happy mystery and the source of our hope and joy.
In all our preoccupations with what is troubling in the Old Testament, may we never lose sight of the Old Testament scandal of God’s relentless pursuit of and costly love for us.
- Why do you think the Old Testament portrays so many deeply flawed characters—including heroes of faith like David, Moses, and Abraham?
- It’s not hard to find OT portrayals of God as violent and vengeful. How do we reconcile that with the God of love and grace highlighted in the New Testament?
- Benckhuysen says, “If we want to know who Jesus is and what Jesus would do, we would do well to immerse ourselves in the worldview of the Old Testament.” What are some examples of insights about Jesus we gain from the OT?
- How has the way God reveals himself to us changed throughout human history?
- Our calling in God’s redemptive plan is different from Israel’s, says Benckhuysen. How might this help explain the OT’s focus on God’s judgment against evil?