How do Christians square Old Testament bloodshed with the God who is Love?
In my last post I ranted about the awfulness of atrocities depicted in the Old Testament, and questioned the character of the God who seemed to approve and even command them. That post represented my emotional, rather than intellectual, response to these difficult and bloody parts of the Old Testament. As such I see it as perfectly valid – we are emotional beings as much as we are intellectual, and I think the anger, revulsion and even loathing we sometimes feel when presented with parts of the Bible needs to be acknowledged. However, now I’d like to present another side of the story, a more dispassionate ‘head’ response to complement the more passionate ‘heart’ one.
First I think we have to acknowledge that the Old Testament does record an enormous amount of violence, bloodshed, war, homicide and even genocide, much of which it presents as apparently sanctioned by Israel’s God Yahweh – who is also Jesus’ God, and therefore (as Christians) our God. So how do we square all this with our knowledge of God as the One who is Love; the Lord of mercy, compassion, kindness, peace, generosity and goodness; the God we are taught to call our loving heavenly Father; the God most fully revealed in Jesus, who does not condemn but takes our sins and sufferings on himself to the cross? Is there any way of reconciling these two apparently very different pictures of God?
It’s tempting just to write off the difficult OT passages and the less pleasant elements of the OT view of God: to say it was simply an earlier, more primitive and partial understanding (or even total misunderstanding) of God for a more brutal age when war, killing and violence were simply a normal, even everyday part of life. And there may actually be a certain amount of truth in this.
First there’s the idea of divine accommodation. God has always revealed himself to particular individuals within particular cultural and historical settings. In doing so he has had to accommodate himself to their particular needs and norms while at the same time challenging and transcending those norms. He has also had to adapt his language and his self-revelation to the limited level of understanding of the people he had revealed himself to (and indeed their limited capacity to understand). In this he is a little like a father learning to speak baby-language to communicate with his infant children, or even a Dr Doolittle learning to speak the language of beasts to communicate with his animal friends. Such communication is inevitably limited and partial; there is much that it cannot express, and many misunderstandings and misconceptions inevitably arise from it.
This is not at all to deny the inspiration of the Old Testament, but to say that it had to be inspired at the level that it could be received at that time – otherwise it would merely be dictation. And the texts are not only inspired – they are also inevitably interpreted, both as they’re written down and edited, and then again as we read them. So (in my view) what we receive when we read the Bible is not pure unfiltered Truth direct from the mind of God – even if such a thing existed, we would not be capable of receiving or understanding it. Like light coming to us from distant stars, it gets bent by gravity and filtered through our atmosphere, and we only see the tiny visible proportion of the full spectrum.
Secondly there’s the related idea of progressive revelation. Always, from the earliest times, God has been preparing and leading his people on to a deeper understanding of his very different ways of love, mercy, forgiveness and grace; of love for outsiders and enemies as well as family, friend and tribe. This has not been an easy learning process for humanity, even for God’s specially chosen and aided people. God has had to reveal and explain and model his ways and character very gradually, at a painfully slow pace, with plenty of remedial classes and repetition, including some fairly drastic and painful object lessons. But over the millennia of the Old Testament we gradually start to see the picture emerging; hints that at least a few people – mainly the prophets – are starting to get the deeper message, albeit partially.
So when we at last get to Jesus, who completely fulfils the Old Testament law and prophets, and indeed becomes the perfect representative of all Israel was meant to be and do, we see a very different interpretation of some of the seemingly harsh OT laws and regulations. No longer are Sabbath-breakers stoned to death; in Jesus, the Sabbath is given a whole new meaning and emphasis. Even prostitutes and adulterers are offered repentance and redemption rather than the capital punishment required by law. In Jesus, we see as clearly as we can what God has always been trying to tell us; what the law and the whole sweep of Hebrew history was always pointing to.
Holiness, judgement and protection
The other aspect of the Old Testament is of course God’s sheer otherness and holiness. In C.S. Lewis’s famous description of Aslan from the Narnia stories: ‘Safe? Of course he’s not safe! He’s the King, I tell you. But he’s good'; and ‘He’s not a tame lion’. God is wilder than lightning or a tornado, more powerful than the heart of a star; he is blazingly, blindingly righteous and good and powerful. So one perspective is that, by his perfect standards, even the best humans look like death-row convicts; even the best human actions look soiled and tawdry (‘filthy rags’, as Isaiah puts it). This is of course only part of the full picture and certainly does not represent the fullness of how God views us, but perhaps it’s a perspective we need to remember occasionally, particularly when struggling with some of these difficult Old Testament passages.
From this perspective, God is entirely right and just to punish sin and evil, and to try to purge his good creation of whatever blights it. This could mean that it’s right and appropriate – even perhaps sometimes necessary – for God to destroy sinful and idolatrous people and even nations, rather as we might do with an infestation of blight or bird flu. The Old Testament perspective is that the horrific and bloodthirsty ritual acts of the Canaanites and neighbouring nations brought down just judgement upon themselves. And maybe if we’d been there and seen or experienced their behaviour we might have agreed. Most of us are keen to see ‘justice’ (by which we generally mean punishment) for war criminals, concentration camp guards, perpetrators of genocide, paedophiles and mass murderers. (One of the problems for us though is that those punished in the Old Testament include children.)
But this is far from the full picture. We have to see at the same time that it can bring God no pleasure or joy to punish and destroy; it is rather something that brings him deep and bitter sorrow. The God revealed in Christ deeply loves every human, however fallen and sinful, and his ultimate plan for all is redemption and salvation. And with God even death is not the end, so it is quite conceivable that those wiped out in OT ‘genocides’ will ultimately find their place among the redeemed; I for one certainly hope so.
Another thing to bear in mind is that in the OT, God needs to protect his fledgling community of faith from contagion and corruption, both from within and without, rather as we need to protect infants from disease before they’ve built up their own immunity. The Israelite community was the nursery in which faithful, loving covenant relationship with God would uniquely be formed and shown forth to the world, and into which the whole world’s redeemer would eventually be born. That nursery of faith had to be kept clean and free from dirt and disease for a season, not just for the sake of its own inhabitants but ultimately for that of the whole world.
In the OT then we see the awesome holy otherness of a God who cannot be approached by mere mortals any more than we can touch the Sun, kiss the lightning or embrace a wild lion. But this same God longs to draw us close to him, and the whole OT is preparing for him to take on human flesh and frailty in Christ, to walk with us and die for us as one of us, and then for him to send his Spirit to live in us as close as our very breath, our heartbeat.
Through modern eyes
Of course, we cannot translate these ‘strange acts’ of God in the OT into moral imperatives for us to follow today. We can’t assume that because God has occasionally deemed it necessary to take drastic action against sin and evil, that we too can go into holy battle, killing and destroying in God’s name. It’s God’s prerogative to give and take life, not ours. One of the problems with these OT passages is that in enacting God’s judgement on the surrounding nations, the Israelites can start to look like war criminals themselves, especially with the wholesale killing of women and children.
At the same time I need to acknowledge that in looking at the Old Testament through modern eyes, with a human rights perspective and a squeamishness about death and killing, I’m flying in the face of how most of the world has operated throughout history, not to mention the whole way the animal kingdom operates. Look at the violence and brutality of Tudor England, one of the most religious periods of our history; Henry VIII, hailed as a great Christian reformer in his youth, ended up having around 72,000 people executed. And even now, in many countries (including some ostensibly ‘Christian’ ones), regime change automatically means the old ruler’s family and supporters being hunted down and killed. I’m not saying that I think this is right or what God wants – I genuinely and passionately don’t. I’m just acknowledging that the world is not as I think it should be, and that God generally works with the world as it is at the moment, not as it ought to be or one day will be.
Love and goodness incarnate
Moving from the Old to the New Testament, the God we see there is still hardly fluffy and cuddly – look at the story of Ananias and Sapphira, and all of Jesus’ and Paul’s teaching on sin and judgement. But, he is good, and above all he is Love. ‘God is love’, the apostle John tells us in perhaps the most profound statement of the Bible. The central fact of all that there is, the ultimate cornerstone of reality turns out not to be raw power, or rigid legal justice, or sheer mathematical intellect; it is love. Unimaginable, unfathomable, unbounded, unquenchable love that goes to the very end – through death, hell and beyond – for the beloved. And amazingly, unbelievably, we are the beloved; we, the stupid, sinful, failing, weak, wayward, messed-up losers we so often are.
I do not believe that God is a homicidal megalomaniac; if he is truly God, he is – he must be – love and goodness incarnate. I believe we must view all other aspects of God through the lens of love, in the context and framework of love, interpreted by love, with the bias of love if you like.
I wrote in my previous piece about the God I know and the God I don’t – the God of my own experience as opposed to the God of parts of the Bible which I don’t understand. The key point is that it’s far more important to know God than to know about him. We need to enter into relationship with him, be loved by him and love him, rather than merely reading about him, theologically theorising about him – helpful though that can be. And from within that relationship, the anger and the judgement of God can start to take on a new aspect.
As I grow in worship and love of God, I may not understand those troubling Scriptures better, but I start to see them in a new light and context, and gradually they start to present less of an insurmountable problem. I dimly sense that they are somehow a true and right part of the being and person I love; that they ultimately make sense, but only in the primary context of relationship, seen through the lens of love.
Only in this context can we hope to begin to understand God’s actions in the Old Testament, and begin to realise that even those parts that are offensive to us are ultimately born out of his divine love and goodness interacting with the mess and brokenness and sin of this world. As Tom Wright puts it, ‘God gets his boots dirty and his hands bloody’ for the sake of the world – and ultimately not by destroying sinners but by bleeding and dying for them; for us.
Towards a partial picture
Of course, all that I’ve said is just the beginning of a rough outline of a partial picture of the truth. The full picture will have to wait, maybe till the other side of the River; perhaps we simply aren’t yet able to receive or understand it. But for now these thoughts give me at least some hope that there is an answer and that one day I’ll see it in full.
I also realise that I’ve only dealt with the Old Testament atrocities in broad-brush; there are still questions to be answered over specific incidents: God asking Abraham to sacrifice his son; the man who sacrificed his daughter to fulfil his vow to God; the plague sent by God on Israel to punish David for taking a census of fighting men; the killing of the Egyptian first-born; the prophet mauled by a lion after being tricked into breaking his fast; the boys killed by bears for insulting Elisha; and so on and so on. I might try and address some of these in more detail another time. But for now I think the broad principles of divine accommodation, progressive revelation, God’s holiness and the need to protect his infant covenant community may go at least some way towards helping put some of these in perspective.