Why is the Old Testament so crazy? – Part Two

In answer to biblical genocides, bloodbaths, and God’s vengeful wrath.
Part One is here.

The God of the Old Testament is a relentless war-monger, we’re told, evidenced by God making the earth swallow a bunch of people with different opinions, feeding poisonous quails to the hungry, and killing two of Aaron’s sons (Moses’ nephews) when they messed up the worship service.

The mainstream culture latches onto these stories as total proof that God or the people who made Him up must be bloodthirsty and unreasonable. Certainly the evidence is stacked against the Judeo-Christian God of Hebrew Scripture and His presumably misogynistic ways. At a glance our humanist sensibilities react in disgust and dismissal.

Last time we stated two considerations:

1) The Old Testament passages about God’s gratuitous violence are not the only things the Bible says about God.

2) We can discover God by beginning from a wider scope of “measurement” than our current human categories.

My goal again is not to justify nor reconcile God’s actions — I am neither worthy enough nor intellectually capable of such a thing — but to reflect on His revealed nature from the Bible to get a deeper understanding of who He is. We immediately have contention with God because we think, “If I were God then I wouldn’t have done it that way.” I’m not sure this is the wisest path to understand Him. I’d prefer that fire cook food but not burn me; I’d prefer that ice never melt in my drink; I’d prefer that I can jump off a skyscraper and land at the bottom without injury; my preferences do not inform the objective reality.

Yet I believe I’m fair in questioning the more harsh aspects of God’s nature. I struggle, as many do, with embracing the more difficult biblical narratives. It’s a lifelong discovery. I’m not here to persuade or pander, but to think through together on these troubling matters. With humility I confess I will not always have the typical answer, or even whole ones. Many will claim this as “copping out”; I’d say it’s reasonable that I don’t have infinite knowledge.

For this entry we’ll discuss some about warfare and the Law.

3 ) The problem of complete annihilation is not answered by our limited reasoning.
If you remember Abraham’s conversation with God about the city of Sodom, it went something like this:

Abraham: So if fifty good people are around, you won’t kill us?
God: That’s right.
Abraham: Forty?
God: Forty’s good.
Abraham: Thirty? Twenty? Ten?
God: Even ten, Abe.

The Old Testament has a familiar theme of the sent mouthpieces of God. Jonah was sent to preach to Nineveh, a town he hated and fled from on a boat before God sent a giant fish to eat him. To Jonah’s dismay, the town repented and received God’s mercy. Prophets like Jeremiah, Isaiah, and Ezekiel were sent to the streets to preach God’s mercy to kings and bums. God even used snobby guys like Habbakuk and Nahum to preach repentance.

All that to say: if God were to take out a whole people-group, we can at least presume He had a reason to do so. Good reason or bad, you decide. But if there were even ten righteous in a town, God would not have done it. I presume total annihilation must be supported by a good reason. I understand that’s a difficult jump and doesn’t always work for me, either. Yet throughout history God continually sends messengers to bring the message of a right relationship with God. As always, the rebellious reject. Some cities rejected so bad that not even a remnant of goodness was left.

In Noah’s day it was the whole world. In Deuteronomy and other places, it was isolated to towns. Today we war in our hearts, as if our spirit is a city with only a remnant of goodness fighting.

But at some point our limited human reasoning fails to understand God’s mind. Why destroy the women and children and buildings and artwork?

Several theologians have tackled this to utterly disappointing answers. One has said that the children would likely grow up into an idolatrous, hateful culture that would never benefit them. But God doesn’t create people simply to remove grace from them. Another has said that God’s justice and purity is so total that killing women and children, while despicable, was a necessary act because they were complying with the wicked practices.

But Cain was the first murderer and David slept with a married woman and killed her husband — neither were put to death for it. Another still has said that such warfare would announce God’s power to neighboring nations as a serious contender. But God already proved His status by splitting the Red Sea and sending ten crazy plagues and making a dude with a stuttering problem the leader of an entire people.

Less important but perhaps true (you can skip this paragraph) is that it’s possible the Israelites, as disobedient as they were, had spared many lives but did not record this in the accounts. This is not biblical errancy, as it’s well documented the Israelites were stiff-necked and rebellious. Most raids are not described in detail, and the few instances where it’s made explicitly clear even the language is a bit obtuse. In Deuteronomy 2:34 and 3:6, the word “destroyed” always has a footnote about its definition which “refers to the irrecovocable giving over of things or persons to the Lord, often by totally destroying them.”

This can quickly devolve into a semantic battle, but plenty of times God uses the word “destroy” in both a normative sense and with a mercy clause. He threatens to destroy the Israelites but of course pulls back; God’s people are still around. It’s possible He may save them through “destruction” as well. If that doesn’t make sense, check out 1 Corinthians 5:4-5 for how one is turned over in hopes that destruction can save them. But this is a weaker point because I cannot soften God’s justice by trivializing the language.

Again it is a struggle to justify this, if our goal is to justify it in a human sense. If you begin with the premise that God is up to no good, it always leads to the same conclusion: bad God, bad. If you begin with the possibility that God is merciful, two things happen: 1) we view history from the stratosphere by empathizing with a broken-hearted God, and 2) we count ourselves blessed that God does not destroy us at this moment and allows us even the thoughts to think about Him. A view to God’s mercy — that He continuously withholds the wrath we deserve — always scales us back to view Him with a modicum of respect.

Such respect leads us to view history from His place. Imagine you are on a building and witness two cars about to collide: your natural instinct is to shout at them. But someone at an even higher level from another angle sees they will be safe, and if you shout at them it will cause them to unnecessarily come to a full stop which will lead to more injury. This is a weak straw-man type analogy but rings true of our limited vision. God being God sees history from the widest scope possible. I still don’t know how genocide factors into this. He could stop it but He doesn’t, and at times He apparently commands it.

My deep feeling is that this is an oversight, that somehow God has made a grievous miscalculation. But history is so rife with these allowances — like not shouting at the two speeding cars — that it leaves us to make our choice about Him. We meet Him with pride against His nature, with despair over his seeming lack of concern, or with trust that He has allowed some things to happen for the good and has shown us grace far more than we deserve or can see. Most Christians force trust! unequivocally, but I’ll credit your intelligence and humility to make your choice.

There really is no viable answer that will please everyone. Nor can I so easily capitulate to secular thinking that God is “bloodthirsty.” When I explain this to the curious churchgoer, I make it a matter of trust, as difficult as it may be. Oftentimes it’s like trusting a long-distance girlfriend; I do trust, but doubts creep in. If God is merciful, I try to conclude He was saving the women and children from a worse fate than war. The Israelites were also clean fighters because of their purity laws: they would not have tortured nor unnecessarily prolonged death. It was probably quick and clean. I’m well aware this is still not a consolation for the skeptic.

4) Violators of the Law were just plain violators.
So what about the Sabbath violators and cussing people? Those guys were stoned with rocks and that’s not a very clean death. Poor Achan and his whole family plus the donkeys got beat with stones and buried under them.

Since every person against the Bible will come with a precommitted opinion, the easy way is to read this and say, “God looks for a mistake and pounces on it.” It’s a confirmation bias that taints the reading with an explicit skepticism. But Romans 2:5-6 says that we store up wrath for ourselves before God’s righteous judgment is revealed. If we’re to be consistent readers of the Bible without a skewed agenda, it’s plainly obvious that the Sabbath-breaker, cussing guy, and jewel thief had not been taken out for these single sins. An unbiased reading shows they got what was coming a long way off. The guy who got killed for cursing had also started a fight in the camp; it’s possible he had been a troublemaker for years. They had been storing wrath until a public sin revealed who they truly were. It’s why Herod got struck dead or Nebuchadnezzar went crazy or Ananias and Sapphira fell over and died.

Is a death sentence still too harsh? Did they deserve the backhand of God? Maybe not, maybe so. This is when our view of God comes in. We either keep questioning God on the premise that He must be cruel, or trust God that He found it necessary. If we also claim God is merciful, then He must have given an extreme number of chances to these violators. The implicit trust does not remove the harshness of God’s justice, but it does freely admit that even God must make difficult choices.

It is also unfair to correlate this sort of punishment with a child who has a terminal illness or a baby who dies in a car accident. They could not store up wrath; they did not deserve these things. It is unfair, yes, and no, I cannot explain. But I refuse to say God punished them. No one can ever convince me that my cousin Jimmy isn’t in Heaven right now.

In the end I know your view of God will inform you however you wish. No amount of endless pages will satisfy everyone at all times. If I let God be God — which He will be regardless — God does not need any amount of humans words to defend His actions. He does what He wants. Those who are inherently suspicious of authority will not accept that stark reality. I understand: that was me for years, and still the honest Christian will admit the struggle. But as one who implicitly trusts God and His Word, I enjoy wrestling with His truth.

Part three coming soon, about slavery and women.

Part one is here.


7 thoughts on “Why is the Old Testament so crazy? – Part Two

  1. Just a point of clarity, on this next installment, if I may. Are you writing to a general audience, Christian and non-Christian, or only to the Christian?

    It seems very much like the latter. If so, I’m not sure you’re adding very much beyond what Christian apologists have said for centuries regarding these troublesome OT passages: God is sovereign; His ways are not our ways; who are we to judge?; etc.

    If the latter, then you can’t start with the premise that God is xyz, for then you’re merely begging the question. Instead, you should answer whether the actions of the biblical god are consistent with goodness, as we understand that word.

    For me, it’s not merely the genocides that are ordered or carried out, but also the manner in which they’re conducted. Drowning? You might want to read up on how awful a death that is. Violent slaughter? I need not say more.

    Ok, there were wicked people – or potentially wicked people – who needed to be wiped from the earth. Was it impossible for God to end their lives in a less horrific manner?


    1. Hey Robert thanks again for your thoughtful response.

      I’m not sure who I’m writing to, but I can tell you I’m writing as a former atheist turned Christian who still struggles in faith with these particular OT events. Even in seminary these issues are largely glossed over.

      You are right: I’m afraid I don’t have much to add to the discussion except to say that I’m dissatisfied with much of the current literature and apologetics about it. Even “God is sovereign” doesn’t always comfort like it should. Not to sound like an “internet troll,” but I believe if you’ve read thoroughly, I confess I have not come to terms with some of the OT. I may be jumping ahead, but in the conclusion entry I’ll discuss if these questions can still be wrestled with all the way to gates of Heaven. I think faith allows for some struggle. Your questions — the method of violence, the potential wickedness, etc. — are also my questions.

      As I stated before, I’m not one for prolonged debate — I’m a bit simple-minded and I also know that it doesn’t move minds online — but I’m still compelled to believe God is good. You mentioned we should answer about God’s goodness “as we understand that word,” but I think we’re all begging the question, what is “goodness” then? You may have your answer but I admit, I’m still seeking that amidst some of these harder passages.


  2. You mentioned we should answer about God’s goodness “as we understand that word,” but I think we’re all begging the question, what is “goodness” then?

    It’s not really begging the question, because when we humans think of goodness, we typically mean acts that embody the promotion of human welfare. What other standard do we have?

    When you’re compelled to believe God is good, how are you defining or understanding “good”?


    1. It appears we agree here on a common definition of goodness. Also I believe we (believers) derive goodness from God as He motivates, sustains, and keeps us accountable. But I’m doing this OT study to further challenge that proposition. It’s rather fun and difficult to maintain His goodness amidst all the crazy OT stuff. I think we can agree on that too.


  3. When you get to the slavery accounts and accounts on women, please also refer to the NT, because there are passages in there as well as in the OT.


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