In the Old Testament, God, who is variously known by names like Elohim, Yahweh, Adonai and El Shaddai, is active, angry and violent – talking to Moses, defeating armies, guiding by pillars of smoke and of fire, and threatening those who disobey.
But in the New Testament, God seems to be more relaxed – a voice at Jesus baptism and not much else – while Jesus, and later the Spirit, take centre stage.
Is this a fair picture, a caricature, or totally wrong? What should christians think about the Old Testament picture of God, especially the violence he seems to sometimes initiate?
God in the Old Testament
There is no doubt that God is portrayed in the Old Testament as commanding and doing some things we would regard as barbaric today. Perhaps the classic example is 1 Samuel 15:3:
“Now go, attack the Amalekites and totally destroy all that belongs to them. Do not spare them; put to death men and women, children and infants, cattle and sheep, camels and donkeys.”
But this isn’t the whole story. God is also portrayed as loving and patient, and there are many commands to love and be merciful, and practical commands that care for the poor and the defenceless (Deuteronomy 24:14-15), even refugees (Deuteronomy 10:18-19), and to provide opportunities for justice rather than revenge (Exodus 24:13).
The prophets revise the picture we get from the earlier parts of the Old Testament, showing vividly that God cares about compassion for the poor and justice and honesty for all.
Despite what critics say, the loving nature of God is more on display than the violent. Many years ago I did a genuinely random selection of 100 Old Testament verses, and found that there were twice as many positive portrayals of God as there were ones we would find negative now (although they almost certainly wouldn’t have seen as negative back then).
God in the New Testament
Of course we know the picture looks very different in the New Testament. God is love says 1 John 4:8. Jesus says if we’ve seen him we’ve seen the Father (John 14:9) and we see him caring for women victims of a male-dominated society (John 8:10-11), outcast lepers (Matthew 8:2-3) and hated tax collectors (Luke 19:5). And Jesus is very strongly opposed to violence, saying (Matthew 5:44-45):
“But I tell you, love your enemies and pray for those who persecute you, that you may be children of your Father in heaven.”
How can we put it all together?
There seem to be three ways we can make sense of these apparent and large differences.
1. Defend all statements in the Bible
Some christians argue that the Bible stands in its entirety and all the apparently violent depictions of God and his commands can be justified. The people who he commanded be killed were really evil and depraved and liable to lead the Israelites away from God or even destroy God’s chosen people. And the children had to go because they couldn’t survive without their parents.
I cannot follow this course. I cannot see how ordering people to murder can be squared with God’s character revealed in Jesus. Can I imagine Jesus carrying out that command? No I cannot! I would rather give up believing in these Old Testament teachings than try to defend such a view of God.
2. The whole Bible is barbaric
Some non-believers, sometimes those who left the faith over issues like this, agree that the Bible stands in its entirety, and therefore must be rejected because the barbaric depiction of God in the early books of the Old Testament belongs to a long gone age.
I cannot follow this course either. I believe in Jesus and he taught and embodied a loving God. I cannot let go of that understanding because I believe it is the truth.
3. Believe what the New Testament shows us about the Old
There is a third way. I believe we can see that Jesus and the apostles rejected this violent portrayal of God and replaced it with with something nobler and truer.
Violence and vengeance in the New Testament
As we have already seen, there are strong New Testament teachings against violence and commanding loving service, even of enemies. But how did Jesus and the apostles deal with Old Testament violence?
Jesus and his mission
In Luke 4:18-19, Jesus sets out his mission by quoting from Isaiah 61:1-2:
““The Spirit of the Lord is on me,
because he has anointed me
to proclaim good news to the poor.
He has sent me to proclaim freedom for the prisoners
and recovery of sight for the blind,
to set the oppressed free,
to proclaim the year of the Lord’s favor.”
He goes on to say that this scripture was fulfilled in him. But it is notable that he chooses not to complete verse 2 of Isaiah 61, which goes onto say: “and the day of vengeance of our God”
There are several views on why Jesus omitted this section, but they all lead to the conclusion that Jesus was distancing himself from violence as a means for fulfilling his mission. And arguably, he was correcting an Old Testament misunderstanding about God.
This emphasis seems to permeate Jesus’ use of the Old Testament. According to the Enemy Love website, the most common Old Testament themes referenced by Jesus were mercy and not seeking revenge.
Paul and violence
In the book of Romans, Paul several times quotes Old Testament passages that included God’s vengeance or condemnation of gentiles – and each time he omits those sections.
- In Romans 15:9-10 he quotes from Psalm 18:49 and Deuteronomy 32:43, both passages that are surrounded by statements of revenge on the enemies of God’s people. But Paul omits these and only quotes the shorter sections on praise to God for his mercy.
- In Romans 12:19-21 Paul urges christians not to take vengeance, and again quotes from Deuteronomy 32. But whereas the original passage was a celebration of God’s vengeance, Paul turns it into an admonition to love enemies.
- Then in Romans 3:10-18, Paul quotes from a series of Psalms to illustrate human sinfulness. But the original context of most of these Psalms was the supposedly righteous writer calling on God to judge these evil-doers, whereas Paul uses the passages to teach that all of us, without exception, need the mercy and forgiveness of God, not his justice and vengeance.
The Old Testament contains several commands to seek vengeance (e.g. Numbers 31:1-3, Joshua 10:12-13, Judges 16:28-30, Jeremiah 50:14-15) along with others to be more loving, but the New Testament strongly teaches mercy, non-violence and not taking revenge.
It is clear then that the New Testament has a different overall emphasis from the Old Testament. However we might explain this, it seems likely that both Jesus and Paul were correcting faulty understandings of God’s character that appear in some passages in the Old Testament, and explaining some passages in a new way.
They seem to have felt free to reinterpret the Old Testament, something that isn’t uncommon in the New Testament, or in first century Judaism – see Interpreting the Old Testament.
Interpreting the Old Testament’s portrayal of God
It seems then that both Jesus and Paul were not happy with the portrayal of God as taking vengeance, and gave us a new emphasis on forgiveness and mercy. How can we understand this?
It seems to me that there are two possible ways to resolve this apparent dilemma.
We all make mistakes
However much or little we may think them inspired by God, the Old Testament was written down by people, and these people used the language and thought forms of their day. It may be that they simply recorded their understanding of God at the time, and they were mistaken on this aspect. This easily resolves the difficulties, but makes the Old Testament less useful as an authoritative revelation of God’s true character.
Learning all the time
God adapts himself to our human limitations, and his self-revelation has always been progressive, starting with what is most easily understood, and gradually moving to a more compete revelation in Jesus. The early Old Testament belongs to an early stage when God’s revelation was incomplete, and the commands to violence were part of their culture that God hadn’t corrected yet.
Or perhaps both
I can’t help feeling the truth is a combination of these. Something like this was the view of CS Lewis, who wrote:
“If you take the Bible as a whole, you see a process in which something which, in its earliest levels …. was hardly moral at all, and was in some ways not unlike the Pagan religions, is gradually purged and enlightened till it becomes the religion of the great prophets and Our Lord Himself. …. At first hardly anything comes through but mere power. Then (v. important) the truth that He is One and there is no other God. Then justice, then mercy, love, wisdom.”
Is this selling the Bible short?
Our initial reaction may be to feel alarmed at this “answer” – it is compromising the truth of the Bible. But we have Jesus and Paul’s example to show us that they seem to have been comfortable with that approach, so perhaps we don’t need to be fearful after all
And anyway, which is most important, a true understanding of God’s love or a doctrine about the Bible?
On this understanding of the Old Testament, it still is inspired, it still points to Jesus and it is still the scriptures Jesus used and which allow us to understand his mission. But we are in a new covenant now, and God is revealed in new ways in Jesus that make the Old Testament view of him incomplete.
I wouldn’t say I am completely comfortable with this view, nor do I think I have arrived at a final view, but I feel this is the way God is leading me.
On this website:
- How Jesus and the New Testament writers interpreted, and sometimes re-interpreted, the Old Testament, in Interpreting the Old Testament.
- The new covenant and how that changes how we view the Old Testament.
- CS Lewis’ view of Old Testament inspiration.
On the web:
- The Way of Peace and Grace: How Paul Wrestled with Violent Passages in the Hebrew Bible
- Jesus Describes His Messianic Mission As One Of Pure Mercy – a view similar to the one I take here.
- Difficult Bible Passages: Luke 4:18-19 – the more traditional view.
- The God of the Old Testament vs. the Father of the New Testament
Photo: Sistine Chapel fresco Creation of the Sun and Moon by Michelangelo, in Wikipedia.