Wes Craven, the famous writer and director of horror movies, could have scripted several of the gruesome human catastrophes in the Old Testament.
Gut-wrenching Bible stories of God killing children, raining burning sulfur, and genocide have left many Christians dazed and confused about the Bible.
To the atheist, these verses prove that the biblical God is cruel, and anyone who believes in him is, at best, brainwashed. Skepticism is understandable. The Hebrew Bible (and its overt violence) can be difficult to defend.
Certainly many of its stories can make your skin crawl and force you to ask the question: But isn’t the Christian God supposed to be a God of Love? There are no simple answers. Many nuances must be considered, and proper hermeneutics should be applied in each passage.
However, there is hope. Here are three general principles to help us understand God’s violence in the Old Testament.
God was Creating a New People
Here’s a short history lesson: God created the nation of Israel from one man in the Ancient Near East: Abraham. His descents were to be a “holy people,” set apart by God. “For you are a people holy to the LORD your God. The LORD your God has chosen you out of all the peoples on the face of the earth to be His people, His treasured possession” (Deuteronomy 7:6).
In order to accomplish this, God had to deliver them from Pharaoh’s subjugation and their intensely idolatrous environment. They were enslaved by Egypt for 400 years!
The oppression didn’t bode well for Pharaoh.
Yahweh hears the cries of His people and unleashes His violent hand en masse via ten nationwide plagues. In the tenth plague, he strikes down every firstborn child through “the destroyer” (12:23).
The Bible states that “there was loud wailing in Egypt, for there was not a house without someone dead” (12:30). Even then, Pharaoh didn’t surrender. But he unwisely chased the Hebrews across the Red Sea to his own doom and the annihilation of the Egyptian army.
God set His people free.
The Amorites, on the other hand, met a fate worse than Egypt. On their journey to the Promise Land, the Hebrews meet a blockade in the pagan city of Heshbon. King Sihon was defiant, and wouldn’t let God’s people pass through his region (Deuteronomy 2:34). Bad idea.
God’s wrath arrived in full force. Moses documents, “At that time we took all his towns and completely destroyed them—men, women and children. We left no survivors” (v. 34). Everyone in the Amorite city died. Sheesh God!
No matter what, the Lord is always faithful to His promises. And nothing—or no one—would stop His mission for His people obtaining the Promise Land. “I will claim you as my own people, and I will be your God” (Deuteronomy 6:7). God was violent to Israel’s’ enemies to ensure his new people survived and thrived.
Still, it’s a big theological pill to swallow. It’s easier to go down when we understand that many of these pagan nations were also extremely wicked in their religious practices.
Let’s take another drink of water.
Extreme Wickedness was met with Perfect Justice
The Amorites not only attempted to thwart God’s plan, but they also practiced a barbaric religion. They worshipped the pagan god Molech, and sacrificed children to him by burning them in fire (Leviticus 18:21; Jeremiah 32:35). It was complete savagery. And there’s more.
God states in the Book of Amos, “For three sin of Ammon, even for four, I will not turn back my wrath. Because he ripped open the pregnant women of Gilead in order to extend his borders…” (1:13).
Did you get that part about ripping open the bellies of pregnant women?
Please don’t throw up. It’s in the Bible.
But it wasn’t only the Amorites who were intensely evil. Other people groups (Arameans, Moabites and Canaanites) also sacrificed children. Furthermore, bestiality, sorcery, demon worship and orgies were also practiced amongst the pagan nations in that day (Leviticus 17:7, 18:23, 19:31). These acts were Satanic, and an abomination to the holy God of Israel (Deuteronomy 12:31).
Overall, God saved His most extreme use of force to crush extreme wickedness. Think of it this way: How could a nascent Israel sincerely trust a god who claimed to be all-loving but didn’t impart justice?
Could we trust a god like that?
God Loved Everyone
God’s divine violence protected His people. It also condemned their insidious neighbors. He was violent but never cruel; vicious but never malicious; and he judged ferociously but was never bloodthirsty. Only God can do that.
Incredibly, the Jews fell into many of the same wicked acts as their pagan counterparts. Yahweh judged His own people harshly, as well. God ultimately allowed them to be conquered by the Assyrians and Babylonians (Psalm 106). You could call it equal opportunity punishment.
Simultaneously, the God of the Old Testament is also love. He offered chances for repentance to both Jews and Gentiles alike. For example, God sent Jonah to warn the city Nineveh of His coming wrath. He loved these people, even though they dwelt in one of the most wicked cities of its day.
Jonah preached and “they turned from their evil ways, he had compassion and did not bring up them the destruction he had threatened” (Jonah 3:10).
The city was saved from God’s wrath. No matter how God chooses to act, we should allow the Creator of the Universe to demonstrate His own character.
“The Lord, the Lord, the compassionate and gracious God, slow to anger, abounding in love and faithfulness, maintaining love to thousands, and forgiving wickedness, rebellion and sin.”
In C.S. Lewis’ tale, The Lion the Witch, and the Wardrobe, the character Aslan is a lion, a savior figure. Lucy, a young girl, asks Mr. Beaver about him. “Is he quite safe? I shall feel rather nervous about meeting a lion.”
He responds, “Who said anything about being safe? ‘Course he isn’t safe. But he’s good. He’s the King, I tell you.”
Aslan wasn’t safe but he was good.
This is like the God of the Old Testament. He’s dangerous, powerful, but always overflowing with loving kindness.