Genocidal God: Answering Questions About the Old Testament God

The Hebrew Scriptures (not a huge fan of the term Old Testament; seems to imply that it somehow doesn’t matter, but I’ll use it from here on out for familiarity’s sake) are somewhat bothersome when speaking to someone about the God of Christians in general, let alone nonviolence. The OT God isn’t always a peaceful one, calling down fire on cities, ordering the mass genocide of an entire land so one people group can have it for themselves, and even throwing his own people into slavery because they didn’t obey him. God’s kinda hard up in the OT (not that anything changes in the NT; the rules just get harder when Jesus comes on the scene).

Is there, perhaps, an explanation for the OT God?  Do we have to explain the actions of a just and sovereign God? Most Christians just prefer to ignore it, saying, “Well, things are different now because of Jesus.” This is a terrible response.  1) the God of the OT and Jesus Christ are the same unchanging God that has existed since time began, so to say “things are different” negates the need for the OT in the first place and shows an inconsistent God, and 2) Jesus never claimed to change the existing Law of Moses, but instead gave its fullest understanding and interpretation, so nothing that occurred in the OT is negated, or “even an iota stricken from the text.” (Matthew 5:18) No, we must proceed with full knowledge that the OT plays a full role in Jesus’ teachings and life (he was, after all, Jewish).

So how do we understand what happened in the OT?  Well, since Jesus is the fulfillment of the law, and he offers the fullest extent to which it is interpreted, we have to look at it through His eyes and how he sees it. A hint for interpretation comes from Matthew 19:

3And Pharisees came up to him and tested him by asking, “Is it lawful to divorce one’s wife for any cause?” 4He answered,  “Have you not read that he who created them from the beginning made them male and female, 5and said, ‘Therefore a man shall leave his father and his mother and hold fast to his wife, and the two shall become one flesh’? 6So they are no longer two but one flesh. What therefore God has joined together, let not man separate.” 7They said to him, “Why then did Moses command one to give a certificate of divorce and to send her away?” 8He said to them, “Because of your hardness of heart Moses allowed you to divorce your wives, but from the beginning it was not so. 9 And I say to you: whoever divorces his wife, except for sexual immorality, and marries another, commits adultery.”

Matthew 19:3-9, ESV

So what’s divorce got to do with nonviolence, or the God of the OT?  Well, everything.  What’s Jesus saying here?  The Pharisees are presenting Jesus with a written part of the law, and Jesus looks at them and says, “You’re not doing enough to follow the law; divorce is not OK unless someone was sexually immoral (infidelity).” Then he drops the bomb on them:

Because of your hardness of heart Moses allowed you to divorce your wives, but from the beginning it was not so.

Right here is where I want to focus. The law of Moses that the Hebrews followed was a bare minimum because they were too ignorant to fully understand it.  As a result, from the beginning, the fullest extent of the law has been in place, but the rule was eased to compensate for ignorance.  Now, the fullest extent having been revealed, no one is without excuse.

This isn’t the first time a rule has changed.  Look at Ezekiel 18:

10“If he fathers a son who is violent, a shedder of blood, who does any of these things11(though he himself did none of these things), who even eats upon the mountains,defiles his neighbor’s wife, 12oppresses the poor and needy, commits robbery, does not restore the pledge, lifts up his eyes to the idols, commits abomination, 13 lends at interest, and takes profit; shall he then live? He shall not live. He has done all these abominations; he shall surely die; his blood shall be upon himself.14“Now suppose this man fathers a son who sees all the sins that his father has done; he sees, and does not do likewise: 15he does not eat upon the mountains or lift up his eyes to the idols of the house of Israel, does not defile his neighbor’s wife, 16does not oppress anyone,exacts no pledge, commits no robbery, but gives his bread to the hungry and covers the naked with a garment, 17withholds his hand from iniquity, takes no interest or profit, obeys my rules, and walks in my statutes; he shall not die for his father’s iniquity;”Yet you say, ‘Why should not the son suffer for the iniquity of the father?’ When the son has done what is just and right, and has been careful to observe all my statutes, he shall surely live. 20 The soul who sins shall die. The son shall not suffer for the iniquity of the father, nor the father suffer for the iniquity of the son. The righteousness of the righteous shall be upon himself, and the wickedness of the wicked shall be upon himself…25“Yet you say, ‘The way of the Lord is not just.’ Hear now, O house of Israel: Is my way not just? Is it not your ways that are not just? 26 When a righteous person turns away from his righteousness and does injustice, he shall die for it; for the injustice that he has done he shall die.

I know that’s a lot to read there, but why did the law change?  As it was for quite some time, the son was always accountable to the father’s sins, but here, it’s no more.  Has God changed?  No, we understand God to be unchanging.  According to Ezekiel, it is we, being unjust, who change.  Perhaps we could say we evolve morally.  God never reveals his full plan all at once; it always seems to come in stages, but He Himself is unchanging.  Mankind has to be ready to hear the next step.

So what?  Well, this is one of the ways I justify the actions of God in the OT (and the subsequent commands of Christ in the NT leading us to nonviolence): mankind wasn’t ready to hear “Turn the other cheek,” or “love your enemies,” they only had “do not murder.”  Now, some may object, saying that there is no reason to believe that just because the law on divorce changed, or because punishment for sins was no longer generational, that other laws changed to.  I disagree.  Take the law “do not murder.”  Is it enough to only not murder, or does that include assault?  Does that include insulting others, demeaning them?  Most would agree it extends beyond not killing someone.  So the Law, in all facets, has a greater extent to which it moves.  We aren’t told the full extent at the start; instead it was revealed over a period of time, and being that the fullest extent was revealed in Jesus, we have a greater law to follow than that of the OT.

Now, this is only a start to answering the questions of the horrible things that happened in the OT.  It’s hardly enough to say,”Well, mankind wasn’t ready to hear ‘Don’t murder your neighbors en masse.'”  In the coming Wednesdays, I intend to answer more questions about the matter, so if you have one, leave one! Feel free to ask me questions!

Thanks for stoppin’ in, droogs.  Remember, ask!

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