What About “Old” Testament Violence?

As just war Christians (those who believe, at least in theory, that war can be just) and peace Christians (who believe that there is never a godly reason for war or violence) discuss their differences, one of the items which always seems to come up is the fact of God-sanctioned violence in the Hebrew Scriptures (a better title than “Old” Testament).  “What about the violence done and the wars waged by Old Testament heroes like Joshua or David?” asks the just war Christian.

The peace Christian then draws a deep breath and begins his response, “Well, you see…”

It is abundantly clear on the pages of these Scriptures that YHWH God was sometimes in approval of violence between human beings—indeed, at certain points, He even demanded that it be done.  Obviously, peace Christians in every era have had to take stock of this fact.  Responses come from a variety of angles. John Howard Yoder and many others have provided excellent insights in responding to this question. What follows is my own response.

Same God, New-ER Testament
Right away, the hermeneutically bigger issue arises regarding the way in which the two biblical testaments are related.  Please allow me, then, to take a brief detour to that subject.  We will soon see what bearing it has on the question of Christian positions on violence and war.

I am among many who prefer to use a phrases like “the Hebrew Scriptures” or “the Hebrew Testament”—or even better, “the TaNaK”[1]—in reference to the part of the Bible usually called “the Old Testament.”  As Claiborne and Haw put it, the term “Old Testament… subtly implies that these books are outdated or invalidated by the New Testament, rather than seeing the New Testament as the fulfillment and continual unfolding of the biblical narrative.”[2] There is no question that the coming of the Messiah brings some significant changes, but it is important that we remember that both testaments are part of one Bible and, together, tell one story.

Sometimes people make reference to the God of the Old Testament as if He were someone other than the God of the New Testament or the God of Jesus.  The ancient heretic Marcion made a lot of hay with this idea; but even now, many well-meaning folks speak in similar ways.  What is interesting is that the New Testament does very little to tell us about God.  Rather, the New Testament writers assume that their readers are well-acquainted with the earlier Scriptures and that they therefore already have a pretty good understanding of the nature and character of God.

The awesome God whose wrath was poured out on Sodom (to borrow a line from our brother, Rich Mullins), the God who drowned the whole human race except for eight persons, the God who ordered the executions of whole people groups—this is the same God who so LOVED the world that He sent His only Son to save all who would believe on Him.

And His character is the same now as it always was.  It is not as though He learned better or some mouse pulled a thorn out of His paw and put Him in a better mood.  It has always been, and always will be in His character to destroy evil.  It is the natural outflow of His holiness.  From start to finish, the writers of the Bible hold this up as part of the good news.  It is a major feature of true worship to celebrate the fact that YHWH God judges and recompenses evil.

But it is also in His nature to love with a love the likes of which man cannot even understand.  Whenever we get even the slightest taste of it, we are blown away.    His love gives and gives and gives.  This too is an outflow of His holiness—His ‘otherliness.’

Now, the love of God, which moved Him to send His Son to provide reconciliation for rebellious humanity, has not replaced or superseded His holy wrath against all unrighteousness.  It is not that the coming of Jesus means there is no more of the wrath and violence with which God has meted out His justice in the past.  God’s wrath is only on hold.  According to Paul, it is “the God of peace” who “will soon crush Satan under your feet” (Rom. 16:20).  In fact, it is because the Lord Jesus was willing to be the Prince of Peace who laid down His life for sinners that He is exactly the One to serve as Judge (John 5:22,27).  God has “fixed a day in which He will judge the world in righteousness through a Man whom He has appointed, having furnished proof to all men by raising Him from the dead” (Acts 17:31).  The righteous judgment of God is so vividly described by Paul in II Thessalonians 1:5-10 that the words practically blaze of the page with holy fire!

So whence comes the Christian call to non-violence?  What are we to make of this God who is both love (I John 4:8,16) and a consuming, vengeful fire (Heb. 10:27; 12:29)?  What was this God doing with the bloodshed of the Hebrew Testament, and what is He doing now with the grace of the present era?

To End All Wars
Anyone who reads the Bible, whether dispensationalist or not, as a continuous story from Genesis to Revelation can hardly miss the fact that there are significant shifts in the way God does things from time to time in the story.  And there is no bigger shift than the HUGE set of shifts which are brought about when the Messiah appears.  The Lord Himself said that He did not come to get rid of the Torah, but to fulfill it (Matt. 5:17).  And Paul says that Christ is the end (not the finish, but the goal) of the law for righteousness to everyone who believes (Rom. 10:4).  So the differences that are germane to our discussion of violence and war are not so much rooted in the differences between the “Old” and New Testaments, but in the fact that the One has come about whom Moses and the other Hebrew prophets wrote (Luke 24:27; John 5:46).

Now that the Messiah has come, certain things which were previously appropriate are appropriate no more.  For example, to continue to make animal sacrifices now that the Lamb of God Himself has been sacrificed would be utterly inappropriate.  Similarly, to conquer—or even to defend—by the sword, now that the Prince of Peace has come, is out of the question.

Moreover, the changes that the Messiah brings are not total surprises being sprung on the people of God out of nowhere.  Peter tells us that the prophets who wrote the Hebrew Scriptures prophesied of the grace that would come with the Messiah (I Ptr. 1:10-12).  They knew that He was coming to bring relief, not just from sin, not just from their bad situation under Roman rule, but also from the necessary weight of what was allowed and expected under the law.

And yet it was not just the prophets themselves who could see this.  Those who read the Hebrew Scriptures closely would see in them a God who was sure to bring relief one day from the burdens of a world without His Son.  People like Simeon, who waited each day near the temple to see the coming of the consolation of Israel (Luke 2:25), would have seen in the Scriptures a God who did not order animal sacrifices just because he liked to see animals bleed and die; nor would this God let the gruesome practice go on forever.  He would one day put an end to all of the blood sacrifices by providing the ultimate Lamb.  In fact, the only reason there was ever any meaning in the animal sacrifices at all was that they were copies foreshadowing the one, true sacrifice of the Son of God Himself (Heb. 10:1-14). 

As with sacrifice, so with war.  Throughout the Hebrew Scriptures, we see the promise that the Messiah would come and bring relief from the “need” for war or violence.

We like to think of the stiff-lipped hero of battles saying some gritty line about the awfulness of war as he bears the psychological scars that he incurred in securing the victory for our side.  “War is hell,” says Civil War General William Sherman.  And King David says, “Man, don’t I know it!”  David was Israel’s Washington, Grant, Sherman, Roosevelt, Patton, MacArthur, Eisenhower, Schwarzkopf, and Petraues—all rolled into one.  The difference is that David longed for the relief from war which would come from His greater Son.  The others simply have not understood that it has already come or that they could just follow Him and embrace it.

David was well aware that God’s ideal for a king was one who would do no violence.  It was because he had been a warrior that David was not suited to build the temple for YHWH (II Chr. 28:3).  Instead, it would be built by his son Solomon, the prince named “peace.”

Prophesying of the future reign of the Messiah, the “Old” Testament prophet Isaiah writes, “… And they will hammer their swords into plowshares and their spears into pruning hooks.  Nation will not lift up sword against nation, and never again will they learn war” (Isa. 2:4).

So we come full circle to see that it was never in the heart of God that man should go on killing man on the battlefield.  Even the violence of the “Old” Testament was merely a matter of groaning for the One who would bring an end to it.  If we fail to see this, we misunderstand the nature of the human-to-human violence in the Scriptures.  And this is, in fact, exactly what many of us do.

Furthermore, we also misread the future.  It is God’s intent that, now, in the age of the grace of the Lord Jesus Christ, His people would be a people of peace.  His kingdom is a kingdom of peace, and we are to be enacting it now.  As we do, we will be bringing about the true sense of the wars and violence of the age before the Messiah came.  And what’s more, we will be providing the sense for the wrath that is to come.  Like our Lord before us, we are to be a people who, when reviled and persecuted, do not return in kind, but entrust ourselves to the One who judges justly (I Ptr. 2:21-23).  It is exactly because we do not resist those who do evil to us that the judgment of God will fall upon them (James 5:6-8).

How sad for Him that so many of His own people continue to miss the point!


[1] TaNaK is an acronym for the three-fold Hebrew canon: the Torah (Law or Instruction), the Nebi’im (Prophets), and the Kethubim (Writings).  The books are arranged and counted differently from the way they are in our English Bibles, but it’s all the same stuff.

[2] Claiborne, Shane and Chris Haw.  Jesus For President. Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 2008  (p.21)

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9 thoughts on “What About “Old” Testament Violence?

  1. Thanks for that explaination Bro!

    A wiered hypothesis: Assuming the wars of this generation may be a sign of the second coming, should we try and stop them? What if people tried to prevent the crucification of Jesus? Not that they would of succeeded nor can we really stop wars. How can one know the Lords master plan?

    Is it all a matter of individual choice?

    • Hey, Pete —
      Let me take a (non-violent) stab at answering your questions. 🙂
      It’s certainly an ironic truth that we would have no salvation, if it weren’t for the fact that both the Jews and the Romans of Jesus’ day committed a great sin and a great injustice and killed Him. In fact, when Peter tries to talk the Lord out of going to this death, Jesus tells him that he is speaking for the devil. But then, when you read the sermons of Peter in Acts, you see that he is able to see and to preach both sides (e.g. 2:23).
      I am not as “optimistic” as folks like Shane Claiborne about the idea that we might actually “succeed” in seeing the kingdom of God grow to the point where it turns the whole world around. And the reason I’m not optimistic about it is that I don’t think the Scriptures teach us that that will happen. In fact, the reason that I put “optimistic” and “succeed” in quote-marks is that I don’t really measure optimism or success in those terms. The Lord Jesus preached the kingdom of God, and they killed Him for it. And that was success. It may not seem optimistic, but from God’s point of view, it was optimal.
      Thus, the Lord does not call us to “succeed” where He failed. Rather we are to continue to live out His success. We are to live out His kingdom here in this world that hated Him and now hates us. This will mean that we will pay in blood, or at least great discomfort. (BTW, This is why I am particularly troubled by the comfortable situation of us American Christians. See my post “On the Necessity of Tribulations.”)
      So anyway, we obviously don’t do the weird stuff you see in the movies, like try to form a Christian militia to kill the Beast. Nor do we go the other way and try to get him installed so we can hurry and get this thing over with. It is God’s job to see that history plays itself out the way He wants it to. It is our job to live out His kingdom here and to bear faithful testimony to the world.
      When it comes to wars, it’s not so much that we try to stop them. It’s that we don’t participate in them or in the power structures of the world which wage them or make people believe they are “necessary.” We don’t shy away from calling the powers or their wars what they are. We bear faithful testimony about the peaceful kingdom of God, which we obviously can’t do while we ourselves are going to war.
      So while nation makes war against nation, let the church stand apart from the conflict, but not from the people. Let the church speak to the powers that be–on both or all sides–saying, “Here is what God says, ‘You only feel it necessary to go to war with your neighbor, because you yourselves (and they too) are in rebellion against the true King.'”
      Meanwhile, let the church also be binding the wounds of the victims of the war on both/all sides. Let the church see no distinction between a person from one nation and a person from another; but rather let us see all as sinners for whom Christ died. Let us see everyone as already belonging to God’s kingdom or as not yet having entered it. Let us see no other distinction than that, accept as it serves to bring flavor to the different dishes at the Lord’s banquet. (In other words, let Mexican Christians bring Mexican flavor to the table. Let Asian Christians bring Asian flavor. Let Celtic Christians bring Celtic flavor. And so on. In this way, the American wing of the church can then discover what she truly has to offer.)

      • Thank you bro!

        You have given me much more clarity on the subject and many more things to think about.

        Love ya man.

      • S’why I’m here! 🙂 And it’s mutual… I just do a lot of my thinking in writing. 🙂 Love you too, Bro.

  2. KC- thank you for posting such insightful material, it has really challenged my world view. I would however like to know what your take is on the passage in Acts 10 on Cornelius, and the apparent conflict with his profession as a leigonarie and his role as a servant of God.

    • Hey, Zach!
      Good to hear from you! Thanks for dropping by TLW!
      I began writing a response to your question some time ago. But it is growing a bit long for a reply here. So I think I’ll make it the subject of a new post.
      I am afraid, though, that I will have to set it aside for now and head off to do other things for a while.
      Hopefully, I’ll get a chance to finish it in the next few hours, but I have a feeling I may not be able to get back to it until tomorrow.
      I wanted to make sure to give a same-day reply to your comment, though; so that’s what this is.
      Again, thanks for making contact!
      Talk to you soon! 🙂

  3. Pingback: 2010 in Review — Generated by the Folks at Wordpress « The Long War

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