There is no escaping the fact that the Old Testament contains many troubling stories of violence, genocide, and even one famous story of God asking a patriarch to kill his only son.
What should we make of all this?
My aim is not to solve these problems. Such a goal is beyond my scope. My intent is far more modest. I simply want to suggest a few things that are often forgotten or not properly understood when it comes to reading the Old Testament. The first has to do with God, the second with culture and context, and the third has to do with how we understand the Scripture itself.
1. God Meets Us Where We Are
The beauty of the God of the Scriptures is that He comes to where we are. The Biblical narrative moves rather quickly from creation– the original and beautiful design– to Fall: the fracturing of relationships between God and humans, humans and each other, and humans and their world. This fracturing has resulted in a separation from God and a severely impaired (or “totally depraved”, depending on your theology) ability to know God.
But it is often forgotten that when Adam and Eve sinned, God isn’t the one hiding. Humans hide; God comes calling. And in saying that God comes to us, we must acknowledge that God is the one who condescends. He lowers Himself, comes into our world, speaks to us in our language. We will say more about this later, but this is the reason why we cannot take something God said in the Old Testament as the final word on a subject. Often, the Old Testament is the first word, the place God begins in His dealing with us.
Take, for example, the famous (or infamous!) call for Abraham to sacrifice his only son, Isaac. As moderns, we find this request–even if it were a test— to be simply appalling. What kind of God would ask a man to kill his son? As it turns out, the answer is, not YHWH. We are on solid footing to suggest that God spoke to Abraham in the only language the he, a pagan, could understand. Asking for a man to kill his only son was, in the ancient pagan world, the ultimate way to express devotion to a god (see: Molech). So, YHWH met Abraham where he was, asking for his devotion in a language that Abraham understood. BUT…the stunning part of the Abraham and Isaac story isn’t that God asked him to kill Isaac, but that God would not let him do it! YHWH shows Himself to be not the god who asks for child sacrifice, but the God who provides the sacrifice! In this way, YHWH was slowly revealing Himself to be different from the gods of the ancient world. He had to start where they were, and then reshape their image of God.
2. The World of the Old Testament is Far Different From Ours
In aknowledging that God meets us where we are, we have also admitted that that world is different from ours. But more needs to be said about the world of the Old Testament. When we read stories of divinely commanded genocide, we cannot fathom how a good God would command that.
(A more liberal view of Scripture would say at this point that the Scriptures are simply what Israel thought God was saying to them, mingling their own motives with their theology, justifying their conquests with divine commands. This is further complicated by the lack of archeological and historical evidence for many of the conquests described in the book of Joshua.)
If one holds to a more conservative view of Scripture, things are trickier to resolve. But there are still things that ought to be considered. What if the nations that Israel was instructed to conquer were so wicked that the only way to give humans a chance of surviving was to eliminate entire sections of early civilizations? Could there be an evil that could not be stopped unless the people whom that evil inhabited were stopped? This was the logic of many of the decisions in the world wars of the 20th centuries. On a lesser scale, Bonhoeffer and others came to the conclusion that though murder was wrong, allowing Hitler to do what he intended to do was worse. Still, the horror of the after-effects of Hiroshima and Nagasaki, show that such a logic or an ethic has its limits.
Part of the underlying problem with the decisions to wipe out a people is, for many conservative Christians, the issue of final judgment and Hell. Were these people killed and left no chance to repent or be saved? Or, does the notion of Jesus preaching to the dead, the “captives”, leave open the possibility that the physical death was not the final judgment on these people? If so, then it may have been a sort of mercy: saving them from damning themselves forever by “turning them over to death.”
Though this is a far lesser scale and a much lighter note, an example of parents may be helpful. On a long road trip, a parent may instruct their children to not speak or touch each other. If this command were taken as an absolute–a command to be obeyed in all situations– the parent would be viewed with horror. How could you tell your children not to talk to each other? Why wouldn’t you want them to hug each other and love each other? What kind of parent does that? But if the children were yelling and screaming at each other, hitting and hurting each other, then the instruction to be quiet and keep their hands to themselves is not only necessary to keep order but also a mercy: it prevents the children from doing a kind of damage they may find it hard to recover from.
3. The Old Testament Is Not the Last Word on God.
The Bible is not a cook book of recipes and formulas for life. It isn’t a coffee table book full of inspirational quotes and sayings. It is a Story. And one cannot jump into a story and make conclusions about the characters or the moral of the story.
In the same way, when we read the Old Testament, we must ask, “Where is the Story going?” The answer is: Jesus. The Old Testament is not God’s last word on a subject; Jesus, the Word Who became Flesh, is the Last Word. (Tip of the hat to Dr. John Goldingay, the OT chair at Fuller, for the phrasing and concept.)
Take, for instance, the instruction on dealing with our enemies. I imagine that in a cutthroat, primitive and tribal world where life was cheap and death was commonplace, God had good reason for beginning His work of revealing Himself and redeeming His people out from this world gradually. God starts not by the affirmative instruction to “love one another” but by the prohibitive command not to murder. Furthermore, the instructions were not even universals at this point; it is, at least as it was functionally understood, Do not murder your brother. Later, the prophets challenge Israel (remind Israel?) to not oppress the poor or the foreigner, slowly extending the prohibitive instructions beyond lines of tribe and kin. YHWH cares not only out Israel, but about all people. The true nature of God comes to a clear focus finally and fully in Jesus. Jesus says, “Not only do not kill, but do not hate; and this applies not only to your brother, but to your enemies. And let’s not just speak in the prohibitive but in the affirmative: Love your enemies.”
In one way, the message of the Old Testament is similar to that of Tolkien’s “Lord of the Rings”: The world is chaotic and rife with evil. It is crying out for a King. But no king was found that is worthy– not an Egyptian Pharaoh, not a Babylonian king, and not even an Israelite king. In this way, the stage is set for the Messiah– Jesus!– to arrive as the world’s true Lord and long-awaited King.
[NOTE: For more on the God of the Old Testament and the problematic perception of him, here is a five-part blog series based on responding to Richard Dawkins’s claims about that “God.”]