Hey Pastor Park! I want to thank-you for the grace you show in your answers. I really appreciate your example of presenting your views in a gentle and humble manner. I also have a question, I struggle with reconciling God, as he is depicted in the Old Testament, with how he is depicted in the New Testament. Did He really order the deaths of men, women, and children belong to nations that opposed Israel? I know He is ultimately just, but I keep getting hung up on this.
Hey dear friend, I appreciate your very kind words.
This is a really tough question that has disturbed me when I was an atheist and disturbs me even more as a Christian. It will always be a point of tension that might not be entirely resolved until our time on earth is done. I’d like to graciously present several different views about the wars in the Old Testament, from most brutal to most reasonable, and then let you decide. I’ll tell you what I personally believe in the end.
Please note: I’m not soft about the Bible. It does say a few hard things that I’m going to question all the way to Heaven. Jesus said hard things too. I don’t want to accommodate Scripture to fit a Westernized, watered down, sugarcoated, therapeutic pick-me-up. But I also don’t want to capitulate to my own Easternized, patriarchal, wrathful, vengeful picture of God. I believe the Bible has way more nuance than that. I know we won’t all see eye to eye on this either, and that’s totally okay. I truly welcome disagreement and I want to know where I’m wrong.
So here are some views to consider.
View 1 – God really did order the wholesale slaughter of entire nations.
This is the most popular view with both hardcore Christians and hardcore atheists. It gives certain Christians a bloodthirsty, fear-mongering view of God to control others, while it gives more ammo to those who hate the Bible.
This view appears to be the most correct one when you first read the Old Testament. It seems no women, child, or livestock is spared whenever Israel goes to war. It also seems God “relished” these genocides as some kind of pleasing gesture. So I can definitely see why the OT looks problematic at first glance.
View 2 – God had to pick the better of two options.
In these ancient times, life was cheap. It was kill or be killed. Israel, the chosen people of God, was always the weakest and smallest nation. If they didn’t defend themselves or make a preemptive strike against pagan nations, they would’ve been wiped out over and over. As much as it would break God’s heart, He had a moral dilemma: either He could let Israel die out from unrepentant idolaters, or He could train Israel to defend themselves and to fight. God would of course grieve over both options, but He picked the better of the two.
This view of “defending your country” bothers us because most of us don’t live under the constant threat of invasion. We’re intoxicated by the surburban quiet of privilege. Ancient society was often at the brink of this moral dilemma: to conquer or to be conquered. If we could pluck ourselves out of a Western view of safety, we might come to understand the barbarism of ancient times.
View 3 – God might not have ordered these wars, but the passages are showing disobedient men who initiate their own campaigns, which are followed by chaos and consequences.
Many times in the Bible, especially the Old Testament, we’re shown what not to do. Since the OT was an orally transferred text, the original listeners would’ve heard these texts with a tone. They would’ve been able to hear which parts were of God and which were not.
For example, the Book of Nahum is basically one big middle finger to the Ninevites. But there is zero reason to believe that God is endorsing hatred against Nineveh — in fact, God sends Jonah to rescue the nation of Nineveh by preaching the truth. So Nahum is a book of racist anger. It’s showing what happens when man gets carried away with his hatred. I’m almost certain that portions of the OT were read tongue-in-cheek with sarcasm. You only need to witness a reading of the Book of Esther at a Purim Festival to get what I mean; there’s a lot of cheering, booing, dramatics, and emotional layers in the Hebrew oral culture.
At times, when it seems God has “ordered” a war, I wonder if some (or all) of these wars were outside the jurisdiction of God’s commands. Maybe the men were saying it was “from God,” just like Nahum seemed like his ranting was “from God.” Perhaps the easiest way to tell is: What happens next? Interestingly enough, whenever there is polygamy, slavery, or genocide in the Bible, it always ends in disaster. The Bible comments on these things, but never, ever condones them. [For more on that, click here, here, or here.]
View 4 – The Hebrew word “destroy” has a different meaning than we think.
If you read these passages, you’ll notice a footnote in your Bible almost every time the word “destroy” is used. It’ll say:
The irrevocable giving over of things or persons to the Lord.
This Hebrew word here can also mean “consecrate” or “put to religious use” or even “redeem.”
Now it’s very possible that during these wars, the Israelites had to defend themselves, and these were not bloodless affairs. Yet at the same time, when God says “destroy them all,” it also implies that God wants to redeem these so-called enemy nations so they may be free from their own oppressive cultures. In other words, God would indeed “destroy” these men, women, and children by rescuing them into a safer society.
These other nations were worshiping demonic gods. They were sacrificing their children in furnaces and performing weird sexual rituals and cannibalizing each other. To call on their gods, they often cut each other with swords and spears. These were barbaric, harmful cultures that had been corrupted by thousands of years of fear and tyranny. Even the women and children must have been indoctrinated into these terrible practices.
What better way for God to flex His power than to bring them home to Himself?
There are way too many other passages in the Bible where God tells the Israelites to welcome the exile and stranger. God says multiple times, “You yourself were exiles in Egypt and delivered.” God constantly remarks on caring for the widow, the poor, the orphan, and the foreigner. With such a consistent theme of God loving the world, I find it hard to imagine that God suddenly says, “Kill those who disagree.”
In the documentary “Collision,” in which atheist Christopher Hitchens and pastor Douglas Wilson have a debate tour, they both end up talking about what to do to your enemy, such as murderers and terrorists. Hitchens says, “I’m not going to love them. You go love them if you want; don’t love them on my behalf. I’ll get on with killing them and destroying them, erasing them.” Wilson replies, “I can echo that, I can say, ‘Amen,’ but God destroys enemies two ways: God destroys enemies by taking them out the traditional way and God also destroys enemies by transforming them into friends. That destroys an enemy too.”
They’re actually both right. When you see an unrepentant group like ISIS, we can’t be still. At the same time, Scripture seems to be saying, “Destroy them by the redemption of total grace.”
Personally, I take a mixture of Views 3 and 4. I’m not sure about View 2 and even less sure on View 1. The important thing is: I don’t want to tell you what to think. I can only tell you how. But the next time you read through these passages of Scripture, it will be helpful to have a wide interpretive approach.
The thing is, if you assume God is bad, He will be bad no matter how much good He does. If you assume God is good, there’s so much insight into what He does in Scripture through a broken, hostile humanity. I only need to see Jesus to trust the rest of Scripture to be good and true.
These passages are difficult, but not without reasonable explanation. Be blessed in your discovery as you see Him in new unforeseen ways, my dear friend.