What About the Violence in the Old Testament?

A common objection to God is the violence we see in the Old Testament. Many think the God of the Old Testament and the God revealed in Christ are different. They say the former was a moral monster, a bully, and unjust.
Just like those funny caricatures we had drawn at the circus, they imagine a sketch of God that exaggerates or completely disfigures His face and character.
Old Testament violence is one of the most difficult topics to address in the Bible. But, as I said earlier, just because we can’t think of a good reason for why something happened doesn’t mean there isn’t one. I’m not God and there are some things I will never understand.
Nonetheless, I do think there is a way forward, and as we will see, God is not some moral monster or bully. Instead, He’s a loving God, full of patience and mercy. Since the evidence is clear that God exists and the resurrection happened, I can trust Him. Just like I don’t have to understand how a doctor is performing surgery on me, I can trust Him because of the overwhelming evidence of His character.
A Picture, Not a Model
As we step back and look at the entire story of Scripture, we see God protecting His people so that through them He could send Jesus and save the world. Further, we see God judging those who reject Him and do evil. Finally, we see the complete account of Jesus and His victory on the cross and His victory through the resurrection.
It’s really easy to create false ideas about God based on some stories in the Old Testament. But when understood in their context and the context of the rest of Scripture, we see that God is and has always been the same.
Whether it’s the story of the flood, the destruction of the Canaanites, or any other violence we see in the Old Testament, the first thing to know is that these stories are singular events. They’re not the normal way God operates throughout the Bible. The overwhelming theme in the Old Testament is God’s unfailing love and mercy for people who run from Him, reject Him, and want nothing to do with Him. Therefore, the assumption that God was always angry and killing people in the Old Testament is false. These stories are also not moral examples we’re meant to follow, nor are they models for us. Instead, they are a part of a larger story, and context will give us clarity to what was actually happening.
God promised Eve and Abraham and His people that through their lineage He would send a Messiah who would save the world. As you read the Old Testament, keep that in mind—that God was protecting the lineage in order to save you and me. He had a plan for Jesus to be born and needed to protect His people so that Jesus would fulfill the thousands of Old Testament prophecies that spoke of His birthplace, lineage, and purpose.
If Old Testament stories of God’s judgment on sin bother you, then Jesus’s final judgment will bother you more. When Christ returns, He will judge those who reject Him. It’s black and white. Those who believe in Jesus will be with Him forever, and those who reject Him will not (Matthew 25:46). God will not force anyone to be with Him.
The penalty for sin is death. We will all die. But those who believe in Jesus are rescued from that penalty and will live forever with Him (Romans 6:23). In Christ, death is a doorway to eternity with Him, not a dead end. And so, in the Old Testament, there were times when God judged those who rejected Him. This is a picture or foretaste of the final judgment.
Whether we recognize it or not, we all want a God who is just. We love justice. We want rape and murder to end. We want justice for those who have been mistreated and oppressed. So does God. And His justice and judgment is an extension of His love. He is ending evil in order to set people free and restore them.
God doesn’t mindlessly command the mass killing of people. In every story that speaks of a killing of some people group, there were years of opportunity, sometimes hundreds of years, for those people to turn to God. For example, God gave the Canaanites over four hundred years to turn from their sin. Noah preached to the people in his community for over a hundred years before the flood happened. In addition, the commands to kill weren’t always for all the people, but just the soldiers. Many scholars would argue that the purpose of these events was not mass killing, but God’s driving out the people from the land and driving out their religion.
God is patient. This is one of the greatest themes throughout the entire Old Testament.
The Canaanites were committing adultery, incest, and bestiality, and sacrificing their children to their gods. They were evil. And God was patient with them, giving them over four hundred years to stop what they were doing. At the same time, He allowed His people to suffer during this time in hopes that the Canaanites would turn away from their sin and to Him.
I find it interesting that many atheists argue that God won’t stop evil, but when He does, they also argue against His methods for ending it. So the question is, is God’s judgment fair? To me, it’s simple. He’s patient and kind, wanting all to be saved. But for those who reject Him, He simply gives them what they already knew was coming—death.
I find that many people who pit God’s justice against His love have a poor view of justice. It’s not unloving to be just. I want to make a point that may seem graphic. If someone were to rape or kill your spouse or child, you would want justice to be served. You love them so much that you believe justice is fair. Furthermore, it is God’s holiness and justice, which are expressions of His love, that want to end evil and cancer and all the other wrongs we see in this world.
God’s justice isn’t only about punishment; it is also restorative. And that’s the beauty of the cross. In Christ, we’re able to be restored to God because Jesus took the punishment we deserved because of our sins. God offers every human the opportunity to not be punished for their wrongdoings.
I believe God is good and trust that His judgment is fair, and I believe that every single person will have a choice to believe Him or reject Him. He’s patient and kind, and I know I can trust His character. Everyone who is in hell is there because they chose to be, and they don’t want out. They don’t want God. Hell is not a torture chamber for those that end up there. Hell is eternal death and separation from God. God doesn’t send anyone to hell. Hell is a choice. And hell is the result of life without God.
Many people wonder why God commanded the killing of children. In the context of those passages, most scholars believe that when the Scripture mentions all the men, women, and children, it’s a stereotypical language for “all.” Put another way, the language of the Old Testament stories has some “trash talk” and exaggeration built into it—just like a football team would say, “We annihilated them.” We see this same type of language used. “We took out the whole city” didn’t mean every single person, but instead meant, “We won.”
This is why not all the Canaanites were killed. The same can be said about other people groups who were said to be completely killed or destroyed, and then later in Scripture we discover they weren’t. Furthermore, when Scripture says that a city was wiped out, it’s not a city like we imagine it in today’s world. Instead, it was more likely a military base. So the context reveals that when these wars and events happened, it was against soldiers, not innocent people. And many scholars believe every city was given a peace treaty and every person and soldier was given a chance to surrender and turn from their evil.
Also, the biblical text uses the phrase driving out or sent out more than destroy or annihilate. Even the words destroy and annihilate are not meant to be taken literally because they don’t mean to kill off every single person; instead, they mean to kill those who fight back. This means women and children and the elderly would have fled as was the normal practice at that time.
As well, like in the flood and other instances, when children and women were killed, we have to remember that God sees things eternally. What might be punishment for some is actually rescue for others. To be born in some of those societies would have meant being offered as a sacrifice, or being raped, abused, or raised as an abuser or murderer. Nonetheless, in all cases, God is judging sin and evil and those who reject Him.
Throughout the Old Testament, we see God fighting for His people. These stories are meant to be a foreshadowing of Jesus’s ultimate fight for His people. In all the instances of war in the Old Testament, Israel is the underdog—weaker and often oppressed by their enemy on the battlefield. God, on their behalf, fights for them and wins.
Through the cross and resurrection, Christ, on our behalf, takes upon sin and death and defeats it once and for all. He fights for us. And when He returns, He will end evil and the Evil One once and for all.
God Is Like Jesus
A lie that I’m still tempted to believe is that I’m not enough. One of the reasons stems from that moment I was made fun of for my eye. Shame causes us to believe lies about ourselves and other people.
Shame also causes us to see God through the filter of the lies we believe about ourselves and Him. This happened to Adam and Eve in the garden.
They sinned and the first thing they did was hide from God. They thought He would be angry and kill them. But you know what God did? He pursued them and asked, “Where are you”? Isn’t that strange? God knew where they were, but He was seeing where they would identify themselves.
God wasn’t after their physical location, but their spiritual one. They were in shame, and when we sin, God is asking us the same question: “Where are you?” Unlike Adam and Eve, although we experience shame and guilt, we’re never in it. We’re always in Christ, no matter what. That is why God is constantly reminding us that He is in us and we are in Him.
Jesus came to remove the shame that causes us to hide and question God’s goodness. He has promised that He will always be in us and we will always be in Him, no matter the mess we find ourselves in. God is with us in our pain, in our sin, in our shame, and in the darkest moments of our lives.
Jesus came to undo what Adam did. Adam and Eve sinned and hid behind a tree. They were naked and covered in shame, and do you know what Jesus did? He allowed Himself to be crucified, naked, on a tree so that He could conquer sin and shame for us.
If we want to know what God is like, we look to Jesus. Jesus is God, and God is best seen in and represented by Jesus. The New Testament writers were aware of every story in the Old Testament, and what we see throughout the New Testament are descriptions like these: “God is light; in him there is no darkness at all” (1 John 1:5). “God is love” (1 John 4:8). God is “the Father of the heavenly lights, who does not change like shifting shadows” (James 1:17). God is the “Father of mercies and God of all comfort” (2 Corinthians 1:3). God is good (Luke 18:19). God is kind to all (Luke 6:35; Galatians 5:22).
The fruit of the Spirit is what God’s character looks like. Love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, gentleness, self-control. These encompass God’s nature and character toward us in every moment. God has always been these things.
If Jesus Christ is the “same yesterday and today and forever” (Hebrews 13:8), and Jesus affirmed the inspiration and authority of the Old Testament by quoting from fourteen of the books of the Old Testament, then you and I can trust the Old Testament. I listen to the person who predicted His resurrection and then pulled it off. Further, all the New Testament writers quote the Old Testament and never cast doubt on the Old Testament’s inspiration.
Not only that, but I find it comforting and compelling that the New Testament writers knew of the stories we talked about in this chapter. They still wrote these beautiful descriptions about God and didn’t feel the need to come to His defense.
We also know that Jesus came to save the world, not condemn it ( John 3:17). He came to save, not kill (Luke 9:56). He came to give life, not death ( John 10:10). He loves every single person and wants none to perish. Jesus is the exact representation of God’s nature and said that “If you’ve seen me, you’ve seen the Father” (Hebrews 1:3; John 14:9). Jesus and God the Father are on the same page. It is His kindness that leads humanity to believe in Him (Romans 2:4). The Enemy is the one who “steals, kills, and destroys” ( John 10:10), not God.
This means that everything God does is from His goodness and love. Even if we don’t understand why or the method God uses to do something, that doesn’t mean there isn’t a good reason. We can trust that it was loving and good. In all those stories of violence in the Old Testament, sin is the enemy. The story of the Bible is God’s loving pursuit of humanity and His ultimate defeat of sin and death for us.
God treats those who believe in Him differently, not because He has changed but because His covenant with His people has changed. Remember, in the Old Testament, the people were under a covenant of law. Essentially, do your part (obey) and God will do His part (protect and bless). Throughout the Old Testament, God’s people continued to disobey and reject God, and yet God continually pursued them with mercy and love. So much so that through the lineage of Israel, God became a man, through Jesus, to save the world.
God hasn’t changed. It’s in the Old Testament that we discover that God has engraved us on His hands (Isaiah 49:15–16). Zephaniah 3:17 shows us that God takes great delight in us, and Jeremiah 31:20 reveals that God’s heart yearns for us. The overarching message throughout the Bible is that God is love.
We don’t come close to understanding all God does, and we’re not supposed to. I used to believe the lies my shame and the world told me about God. I used to think He was an old, angry man in the sky ready to strike me with lightning if I missed a step. But I now see that Jesus is a loving, kind God who gave Himself for me.
Ephesians 2:7 says that “in the ages to come [God] might show the surpassing riches of His grace in kindness toward us in Christ Jesus.” Do you see what His plan is for you? He wants to convince you of His kindness and goodness toward you. His plan is to show you the fullness of His grace.
Will you let Him?

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