Look To Jesus While Making Sense Of The Old Testament’s Violence

/Look To Jesus While Making Sense Of The Old Testament’s Violence

Violence In The Old Testament is an ongoing series of reflections designed to help Christians make sense of Jesus’ teaching on peace and enemy love when juxtaposed with the images of an often violent and vengeful God found throughout the Old Testament.  After all, violent Old Testament passages, such as those attributing genocidal acts to God, ought to be problematic not just for pacifists, but for every moral, Bible-believing Christian.

I apologize for not posting any new reflections this past month.  Despite the apparent inactivity, I have been diligently researching in hopes of refining and improving the remaining posts in this series on violence in the Old Testament.  Starting with the next post, we’ll be taking what may seem like an unrelated detour.  We’ll be addressing Advent’s big question…the one many Jews were debating in the years before Jesus’ incarnation; namely, what will the long-awaited messiah be like?  The answer to this question will significantly aid our efforts to make sense of the apparent incompatibility between Jesus’ teaching on enemy love and the violent strands of the Old Testament.

Oh, and before I dive into today’s post, you’ll have noticed that the website has once again undergone a facelift.  I hope you like the new layout, added features, and ever-growing list of resources.

Today, I want to go back and highlight once again the central point of the previous post in this series.  I’m doing this because, since writing it, I’ve become increasingly convinced that the implications of that post are arguably the most important lesson for us to learn in this entire series.  I realize now that I did not place enough emphasis on them.

As you may recall, in the previous post I presented three reasons that any portrayal of God and any call to a particular way of life that is espoused by Scripture must be filtered through the way of Jesus and His revelation of the triune God’s essential character, values and priorities.

Let’s break that statement down into its two assertions.  First, if you want to know what God is like, look to Jesus.  This is because Jesus is the definitive, unsurpassable, unequalled revelation of God (see Heb. 1:3a).  All other biblical revelations of God’s character are intended to be filtered through Jesus.  That’s not necessarily to say that other biblical depictions of God are incorrect; they just aren’t as clear and comprehensive and thus are more susceptible to misinterpretation.

Secondly, if you want to know how God intends for us to live, look to Jesus, for we are a people called to follow the way of Christ.  As the Apostle John said it, “Whoever claims to live in him must live as Jesus did” (I Jn 2:6).  Thus, Jesus is not only the definitive revelation of what the triune God is like; Jesus also perfectly modeled all that God intends for humanity to be like.

With these two truths in mind, we no longer need to fear being unable to resolve the apparent contradiction between Jesus’ teaching on peace and enemy love with the vengeance and violence attributed to God in the Old Testament.  This is the point I did not stress enough in the previous post.

Listen carefully: When we reach the end of this series, if this issue is still unresolved for you (which is likely), there are two things that should not be at stake: (1) Your mental image of God’s essential character, and (2) Your understanding of how followers of Jesus are to live.  

Regardless of our ability or inability to make sense of the violent strands found in the Old Testament, we can remain confident of what God is like and how He desires for us to live, because both are definitely revealed in Jesus.

Should we be confused about what the triune God is like?  No.  Jesus reveals this quite clearly.  Should we be confused about how God desires for us to live?  No.  Jesus modeled this quite clearly.  Will we continue to be confused by the violent depictions of God in the Old Testament?  Likely.

[1]  After all, in two thousand years Christians have been unable to agree upon any proposed explanation.  Will this confusion unravel our faith?  No.  We can rest confidently that God and His will for us are accurately, definitively, and unequally revealed in Jesus.

[1] In future posts I will indeed present a handful of solutions Christians have proposed throughout history.  You may come to view one of these proposals as satisfactorily explaining the apparent contradictions.  However, the fact that, throughout two thousand years of Church history, Christians have been unable to agree upon any proposed explanation leads me to conclude that I would be naïve to believe any proposal I offer will suddenly attain unanimous approval.


About the Author:

Husband, father, writer on Jesus' approach to peacemaking, and North America Coordinator for Servants to Asia's Urban Poor (servantsasia.org). Servants is an international network of Christian communities living and working in the slums of Asia and the West, participating with the poor to bring hope and justice through Jesus Christ.
  • klp633

    “explaining the apparent contradictions”  – are you not begging the question to assert that the OT expressions of violence from God and the NT teachings on peace and mercy are “contradictions?”  Even the added “apparent” still has you making the two aspects appear to be in opposition or contradiction.  If Jesus is the “same yesterday, today, and forever,” then we must start with the presupposition that Jesus – as part of the triune God – was as totally and consistently a part of the OT events as He is consistently a part of His NT incarnation and teaching.  Hence, don’t suggest a contradiction.  I will be interested to see how you develop this. -Keith P.

    • Thanks Keith.  The reflections I’ve been posting here are my attempt to improve and think further on a chapter I wrote on this very issue a few years back.  In that chapter, I had a section that addressed this very point you are raising: that God does not change.  We cannot say that God grew up, matured, and woke up one morning with the epiphany that He should no longer execute violence.

      Thus, since the triune God (which each member of the Trinity is exactly like Jesus in character) is eternally the same, any resolution to this “apparent contradiction” in actions and teachings attributed to God found in the Old and New Testaments need (in my opinion) to do one of three things.  Either: 

      (1) Show that there is in fact no contradiction.  The teachings just APPEAR to contradict until one understands them more fully.  Personally, I believe it is a futile endeavor to attempt to prove the teachings don’t contradict.  I believe it is quite easy to show they do, and plan to present a very strong case for this in two posts from now when I write on Jesus’ snapshot of His messianic mission.

      (2) Show that there is in fact a contradiction, but then explain why God intended from the beginning for them to be contradictory.  In other words, perhaps God intends for these teachings to contradict, not because He has changed, but because He always intended to have two different phases of one overarching plan.  This is the approach I uphold, at least for the most part.  Within the next three posts, I’ll have unpacked my proposed solution.

      (3) Show that every passage that attributes violence to God is actually the culturally conditioned belief of the writer; it does not accurately describe God.  The quick rebuttal to this approach is that all of Scripture of inspired by God, and even Jesus made it clear that He viewed the Hebrew Scriptures as God’s inspired word.  The response those who uphold this view give is that God deemed it best to inspire Scripture in such a way that it reveals the progression of His effort to reveal His true nature to mankind.  Thus, God believed it would be most useful to our own faith development to observe that mankind tends to always begin with a tribal view of God…a god who fights on behalf of your group and is always against your enemies.  Proponents of this view then say Jesus is the ultimate revelation of the Triune God, and we ultimately filter everything Scripture attributes to God, through Him.  If you’ve read my other posts in this series, you’ll have seen that I also uphold Jesus as God’s intended lens through which we read Scripture.  However, where I diverge from proponents of this view is that I see Jesus revealing the fullness and intended meaning of the Old Testament, where this view uses Jesus to discard portions of the Old Testament.  That’s quite a difference.  I may write a post or two about this approach, as it is currently the most popular proposal amongst Christians globally.

      OK, I hope that’s some good food for thought.  I hope you’ll continue to comment.  I’d especially enjoy hearing your thoughts once I’ve finished this series and you’ve read how I’ve come to make sense of these apparent contradictions.

      • Joe

        We are together on the christo-centric read of the whole bible. This is a very helpful and needed starting point that most Christians miss. However, it seems like in these possibilities you are listing you aren’t appreciating the holy violence described in the NT. There is plenty of mercy in the OT (though its true nature and extent is concealed) , and plenty of violence is revealed fully in the New. What do we do with the book of Revelation? What do we do with the fact that Jesus spoke, more often than any prophet, of the judgement to come? The immediate judgement of Jerusalem to their generation but also of a judgement for each and every person in the whole world.