How do we reconcile the “violent” Old Testament God with Jesus?

The slaughter of the Canaanites is one of the most troubling passages in the Old Testament. Not only has it been used to justify colonialism and ethnic violence, it also seems to reveal a picture of God that appears at odds with Jesus’ portrayal of God in the New Testament.

How should we try to understand this apparent contradiction?

Branson Parler, writing for the Missioalliance blog, offers some good thoughts about this question and particularly the attempt to downplay or dismiss the accuracy of the Old Tesament portrait.

“One popular answer is that the conquest narratives record Israel’s projection onto God rather than God’s actual instructions to Israel. God is not really judging the inhabitants of Canaan with Israel as his instrument, its proponents say, Israel is simply rationalizing its own selfish drive to possess the land. In order to transcend Israel’s faulty and murderous self-justification, they then encourage us to read later texts, such as the Gospels, over against these problematic earlier texts. The more this interpretation prevails the more popular it has become to speak of “God’s violence” rather than “God’s justice” or “God’s judgment.” After all, if unseemly OT texts simply amount to human projections onto God, then we create “God” in our violent image rather than witness to a God who is just in all his ways…

Yet there is a fatal flaw with this interpretive approach. In the biblical narrative, the logic of conquest, exile, and cross are actually tied together. The way we approach one determines how we approach all three.

….If you think the conquest narratives are problematic, the exile narratives are more so. In terms of sheer volume, the Bible talks far more about God’s judgment on disobedient Israel through Assyria and Babylon than it does about God’s judgment on the Canaanites. In terms of judgment and terror, the narrative in Joshua is quite tame in comparison to the covenant curses of Deuteronomy 28, which promise Israel that the destruction of one’s family, land, and property will drive people mad, that the horror experienced by Israel will become a “byword among the nations,” and that parents will cannibalize their own children. As Jeremiah laments, “With their own hands, compassionate women have cooked their own children, who became their food when my people were destroyed” (Lamentations 4:10). If the idea that “God judges sinful people through a chosen instrument” is a projection, then no one is projecting more than the biblical prophets who warn God’s covenant people repeatedly to turn or suffer the consequences.”

Parler points out that explaining away the conquest passages also has implications for how we understand Jesus and his mission:

“…[I]f accounts of God’s judgment are mere projections, of course, then Jesus’s beliefs about the exile and his own role in bringing about the end of exile were wrong. … if Jesus’s account of Israel’s covenant and his role in relation to it was wrong, then Jesus doesn’t reveal Israel’s God. Far from it, he reveals his own confusion and ignorance by projecting onto God the idea that he had to die for the sins of his people (a confusion then perpetuated throughout the rest of the New Testament). And of course if Jesus was confused about what the Father wanted, then he was neither the Messiah nor the eternal Son. In other words, if you pay close attention to the biblical narrative, you cannot consistently interpret Joshua as a projection onto God and Jesus as the full revelation of God.”

But what about using these passages to justify violence today?

“Many people think that if one affirms that God commanded Israel to do what they did in Joshua, then it implies God’s stamp of approval on any and all actions of war (or at least just war). But this is not at all the case. I affirm God’s providential use of Assyria, Babylon, and Rome to judge, but that does not mean that the actions of the rulers or armies of those nations were morally good. For example, after Isaiah notes that God is going to use Assyria to judge, his application of the message is not “Go join the Assyrian army”; for they too will be judged in turn for their wickedness (Isa. 10). Likewise, when Jesus notes that Jerusalem will be judged, he doesn’t encourage his followers to defect to the Roman armies…

The point of all this is recognizing God’s proper place and authority to judge. God has the right to do this; we do not.”

He concludes,

“[H]ere’s the rub: the God created by those who insist on talking about divine “violence” is more a projection than the God attested to by Joshua, Jeremiah, and Jesus. A violent God rather than a just God is the product of the contemporary failure to read Scripture closely, faithfully, and directionally.”

Read the whole thing here. It’s a great post.

For more books on the topic of the Old Testament wars, check out Is God a Moral Monster? by Paul Copan, God Behaving Badly by David Lamb, The God I Don’t Understand by Chris Wright, and Holy War in the Bible edited by Heath A Thomas, Jeremy Evans, and Paul Copan.

3 replies
  1. gary
    gary says:

    Imagine talking to someone who attempts to justify the horrific crimes against humanity committed by Adolf Hitler or Joseph Stalin. What would you think of such a person? Even if they condemned such behavior today, their justification of brutal crimes committed in the past would not be excusable. You would look upon such a person with disgust and contempt and consider them incredibly immoral.

    So let’s take a look at Christianity. Practically every version of Trinitarian Christianity, from fundamentalist to liberal, sees Jesus as the God of the Old Testament. To deny that Jesus is the God of the Old Testament is to deny the Trinity. If Jesus is the God of the Old Testament he is guilty of some of the most barbaric, horrific acts of infanticide and genocide known to man. Yet Christians of all stripes pray and worship this mass murderer of men, women, and little children.

    Any Christian who refuses to condemn and denounce the God of the Old Testament is immoral.

  2. David Billing
    David Billing says:

    OK Gary, interesting comments, but here is the thing. By what moral standard do you judge God in the Old Testament as objectively immoral?

    Here is how your denunciation of evil actually assumes God:
    1. When you assume that there is such a thing as evil, you assume such a thing as good.
    2. When you assume that there is such a thing as good, you assume a law to differentiate between good and evil.
    3. When you assume that there is a law, you assume a moral law giver
    Since God is the moral law giver, He has the right to judge people in any way that is consistent with His nature. Moreover, God is the creator of life, and as such has the right to take it back. No one else has this right, and that is why Hitler and Stalin were monsters.

    I have a question for you though: What gives you the right to denounce those who do not denounce the God of the Old Testament? Who are you to impose a moral standard on us?

    See if you denounce us, then you assume God exists. If you do not denounce us, then what you have said loses all its force, and you have, in effect, said nothing. What’s it going to be?

  3. Laura
    Laura says:

    Ok then, how about there is no such thing as objective good or evil? How about what we consider good is what ultimately allows our species to thrive? This allows us to do away with the unproductive mental gymnastics we perform by trying to logically reason out the actions of a man-made God, and frankly one I want nothing to do with. No one asked to be a player in this sick game…. I didn’t agree to the rules before we started playing.

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