Full-city massacres. Murder, rape, and dismemberment. Fire raining down from heaven at a single command.
No, it’s not the latest action movie but, rather, real-life events depicted throughout God’s Holy Word, the Bible.
Christians often wonder how God felt about all this. Did God condone the violence found in the Old Testament? How could our Good Father — the God of life, creation, compassion, and mercy — not only allow but encourage some of the brutality depicted?
What Sort of Violence Is Depicted in the Old Testament?
In Exodus, God blanketed Egypt with widespread plagues, including the killing of all firstborn children (Exodus 12:29).
In Leviticus, God sets forth harsh laws, including execution for sins labeled “detestable” by Him (Leviticus 20).
Violence against women runs rampant throughout Judges, from the sacrifice of Jephthah’s daughter (Judges 11) to the sexual abuse and dismemberment of the nameless concubine in Judges 19:23-30 (which there was a call for justice and action for her), to the indiscriminate slaughter of all non-virgin women in Judges 21, with the exception of the 400 young virgins forced to marry their captors. (It’s worth reading all these instances in context, as well).
God’s prophet Elijah called down fire from heaven to consume two separate groups of men who came to speak to him on behalf of King Ahaziah and would have torched a third had they not begged for their lives (2 Kings 1).
One of the more bizarre acts of violence comes in 2 Kings 2:23-25, which tells how the prophet Elisha, a man of God, cursed a group of boys who taunted him, calling him “Baldy” as he walked toward Bethel. Two bears suddenly came from the woods and mauled 42 of the boys, fulfilling the curse.
Did God Call for Any of the Violence in the Old Testament?
While some of the violence in the Old Testament was done by God’s people, some of it appears to have been called for by God Himself. For instance, in Joshua 8, God ordered the leader of the Israelite tribes to ambush and annihilate the city of Ai, and throughout the book of Joshua, God seems both to prescribe and approve of the bloody conquest of Canaan, which involved the slaughter of women, children, and animals.
Judges 1 describes how God helped Judah triumph against the Canaanites and Perizzites, the people in the hill country, and the entire city of Bethel, which was put “to the sword” (Judges 1:25). This is fully in line with what God ordered through Moses in Deuteronomy 7:1-2 that when God’s people entered the Promised Land they were to “destroy them totally. Make no treaty with them, and show them no mercy.” And, as elaborated in Deuteronomy 20:16, “Do not leave alive anything that breathes.”
It’s not only enemies who experienced such wrath. In 2 Samuel 6, when King David and his men were bringing up God’s holy ark on a cart from Baalah to the City of David, one of the oxen stumbled and an Israelite named Uzzah reached out to steady the ark. Scripture tells us “the Lord’s anger burned against Uzzah” because Uzzah touched His holy ark, considered an irreverent, disrespectful, and disobedient action. God struck down Uzzah, and he died (2 Samuel 6:7).
Why Would a Loving God Condone Violence?
Some people take great issue with the fact that our loving, good God would not only accept but, indeed, authorize violence. Some scholars have concluded the violence described was far less brutal than the text might imply. For instance, “destroy” or “put to the sword” could be a metaphor for merely driving enemies out of the land. Battle language can be extreme, after all.
Other scholars remind us that God, who is holy and all-knowing, discerned the souls of all the people destroyed, and these were not innocents but rather evil enemies of the Lord in a grand holy war. After all, the Canaanites were a wicked people (Deuteronomy 9:4) who regularly sacrificed their sons and daughters in the fire to false gods (Deuteronomy 12:31). Other enemies were known tyrants who viciously oppressed and exploited people.
In essence, God wasn’t glorifying violence but rather destroying intolerable evil, a necessity, and, perhaps, a last resort.
For instance, the Bible tells us God, struck by the rampant iniquity and malevolence filling the heart of every person on earth, was “deeply troubled” (Genesis 6:6) and resolved to wipe out the human race. But one man, Noah, God saw to be righteous, and so He chose to restart the world with the one salvageable human family in existence.
God’s anger is not rash but rather a holy response to evil intruding upon the world. Sometimes, He allows this evil to occur until the right time, such as when he told Abram the sins of the Amorites had not yet reached its “full measure” (Genesis 15:16).
Does God Delight in His Wrath?
God does not delight in His wrath. He prefers that His people repent and live.
He is a God of many chances, offering grace and mercy even toward great evildoers. He told Jonah to go preach His word to the city of Nineveh, warning the people God was going to overthrow their city because of their awful wrongdoings. However, the threat of impending doom woke the people from their evil ways, and they repented their sins. God offered them grace and did not destroy Nineveh (Jonah 3:10).
In 1 Kings 21 — after His prophet Elijah told the bloodthirsty King Ahab that God would bring disaster upon him, wiping out his descendants, whose remains would be devoured by dogs and birds — Ahab tore his clothes and fasted in repentance. Yet in spite of Ahab’s evil heart, God softened at his display of humility, telling Elijah, “Have you noticed how Ahab has humbled himself before me? Because he has humbled himself, I will not bring this disaster in his day, but I will bring it on his house in the days of his son” (1 Kings 21:29).
Years later, God expressed similar understanding and compassion when He told the prophet, Ezekiel, “But if a wicked person turns away from all the sins they have committed and keeps all my decrees and does what is just and right, that person will surely live; they will not die.… Do I take any pleasure in the death of the wicked? declares the Sovereign Lord. Rather, am I not pleased when they turn from their ways and live?” (Ezekiel 18:21, 23).
It’s the same sort of grace offered by God when He sent His son, Jesus Christ, to show us the path to eternal life and pay the debt of our unrelenting sin once and for all.
Indeed, reading the Old Testament with an eye on the New Testament, and God’s ultimate plan through our Savior Jesus, indicates another perspective about the violence throughout earth’s earlier days. After all, we know God’s full plan involves teaching and ultimately rescuing His people from evil through His Son, Jesus Christ.
While the violence peppered throughout the Old Testament can be troubling and confusing to believers, we are to take heart and know that God loves us. He hates evil and will punish when necessary.
But as Jesus said, fear not, “In this world you will have trouble. But take heart! I have overcome the world” (John 16:33).
Photo Credit: ©iStock/Getty Images Plus/RomoloTavani
Jessica Brodie is an award-winning Christian novelist, journalist, editor, blogger, and writing coach and the recipient of the 2018 American Christian Fiction Writers Genesis Award for her novel, The Memory Garden. She is also the editor of the South Carolina United Methodist Advocate, the oldest newspaper in Methodism. Learn more about her fiction and read her faith blog at jessicabrodie.com. She has a weekly YouTube devotional, too. You can also connect with her on Facebook, Twitter, and more. She’s also produced a free eBook, A God-Centered Life: 10 Faith-Based Practices When You’re Feeling Anxious, Grumpy, or Stressed.