There is no denying that in the Old Testament (and in part, the New Testament) the actions of God are often violent and bloody. Either through direct action or through sanctioned action God seems responsible for a large number of deaths. These actions attributed to God not only seem unpleasant compared with our modern conceptions of decency, but also seem inconsistent with the Bible’s own prescriptions for human morality (e.g. “you shall not murder” Ex 20:13) and the Bible’s own descriptions of the character of God:
The Lord is merciful and gracious, slow to anger and abounding in steadfast love (Ps 103:8)
Have I any pleasure in the death of the wicked, declares the Lord God, and not rather that he should turn from his way and live? (Ezek 18:23)
The Lord is not slow to fulfill his promise as some count slowness, but is patient toward you, not wishing that any should perish, but that all should reach repentance (2 Pet 3:9)
Anyone who does not love does not know God, because God is love (1 John 4:8)
Some Christians have concluded that this inconsistency cannot be resolved and that those OT books that ascribe violent actions to God must be in error. However, trying to pick-and-choose which books of the Bible we accept based upon our preferences opens up a number of other problems so before dismissing those parts of the OT that we find unpleasant, it is worth reflecting on whether this apparent inconsistency can be resolved.
In this post I do not intend to go through each instance of violence and see whether it can be justified. Instead I will propose some general principles for engaging with such passages.
1) The Infallible Judge
The Bible describes God as a righteous judge (Ps 9:8). This is because God is not swayed by external appearance but looks on the heart of men (1 Sam 16:7). God, knowing everything, knows exactly what we’ve done, what our intentions were and what our heart is set on. Thus God is able to judge completely fairly and punish each one for his conduct (1 Kgs 8:32).
Many people feel very uncomfortable with the death penalty in human justice systems because (i) human judges might make a mistake, (ii) human judges can never know all the circumstances, and (iii) the death penalty leaves no room for repentance and a fresh start. But these problems do not apply to God, because (i) he does not make mistakes, (ii) he can know all the circumstances and (iii) he knows whether our repentance is geniune. Therefore God can apply the death penalty justly.
2) Protecting the Innocent
It is important when considering these violent passages to take into account all the circumstances. The destruction of Sodom and Gomorrah is a prime example. When God reveals to Abraham that is going to destroy Sodom and Gomorrah, Abraham intercedes on behalf of the people asking if God would destroy a wicked city if there were still some innocent people left. Abraham starts with fifty, then forty-five, then forty, then thirty, then twenty and finally ten. God says that for the sake of ten righteous people, he would spare all the wicked people in those cities (Gen 18). Then God sends two angels to rescue Lot and his family from Sodom before he destroys it (Gen 19). Now if God would spare a wicked city for the sake of ten and if, finding only four, sends angels to protect the innocent then perhaps God’s destruction of Sodom no longer appears to be wanton destruction but instead is a precise and targeted death penalty.
Modern readers often expect the Bible accounts to be straight and to the point, without flourish. However much of the Bible, even its historical portions, is written with hyperbole – that is, highly stylized narration. There is good reason for supposing that certain commands of God to totally destroy all that breathes (e.g. Josh 10:40) are hyperbolic and do not indicate that God desired the slaying of innocent men, women and children. Biblical scholars have noted that often the Bible will say that the Israelites totally destroyed a nation, only for that same nation to reappear a few pages on. Either the Bible is just inconsistent, or the language of total destruction is a hyperbolic way of recording a victory. Whilst recording historical events in this highly stylized way may seem strange to modern readers, there are good examples of similiar hyperbolic language in other documents from the ancient near east.(See particularly Matthew Flannagan, “Did God command the genocide of the Canaanites?” in Come Let Us Reason Together (B&H Publishing, 2012); and Paul Copan, Is God a Moral Monster?).
When reflecting on those passages where God is violent we need to ask (1) what does this passage mean? (i.e. is it literal or hyperbolic) and (2) is the killing unjustified? In many cases either the passage does not mean literal killing, or the killing involved is just penalty for previous crimes.