Old Testament Violence and the Nature of God

This coming Sunday, I’ll be preaching the story of Achan from Joshua 7. According to the book of Joshua, after the Israelites conquered the city of Jericho, Achan took a Babylonian robe, some silver, and a bar of solid gold.[1] When God reveals this sin to the nation of Israel, the book of Joshua says that “all Israel stoned [Achan and his family], and after they had stoned the rest, they burned them.”[2] Now, I don’t know about you, but that seems like the exact definition of cruel and unusual punishment!

Achan’s story isn’t the only instance of this kind of extreme punishment in the Bible, however. Just two chapters before Achan’s story, the Bible tells the story of Jericho. Now, if you grew up in church, you’ve heard about the Israelites marching around the city with horns before the walls fall down. For some reason, Sunday school teachers usually pass over Joshua 6:21: “[The Israelites] completely destroyed everything in the city with the sword—every man and woman, both young and old, and every ox, sheep, and donkey.”[3]

These Old Testament stories, along with a handful of others, led Oxford biologist Richard Dawkins to famously say: “The God of the Old Testament is arguably the most unpleasant character in all fiction: jealous and proud of it; a petty, unjust, unforgiving control-freak; a vindictive, bloodthirsty ethnic cleanser; a misogynistic, homophobic, racist, infanticidal, genocidal, filicidal, pestilential, megalomaniacal, sadomasochistic, capriciously malevolent bully.”[4]

Now, Dawkins’s rant isn’t an argument against God; he’s essentially calling the Old Testament’s picture of God names before moving on to what he thinks is a better target to attack. Nevertheless, to his credit, Dawkins does make an interesting point if we only carry it into Christian theology.

As Christians, we believe that the Bible is God’s revelation of himself to us; that is, in the Bible, God is telling us what he is like. Based on the Bible, we typically say things like “God is great,” “God is kind,” “God is love,” “God is patient,” and so on. However, Joshua—the book that talks about the Israelites killing every man, woman, and child in Jericho with divine approval[5]—is a part of the Bible. So, what does Joshua teach us about who God is and what he is like?

First off, we could say that these stories teach us about God’s role as the ultimate judge of sin. The first hint of Joshua’s war narratives comes all the way back in Genesis when God tells Abraham that he will send Abraham’s children, the Israelites, into slavery in Egypt until the sin of the Canaanites becomes mature.[6] That is, according to Genesis, the Israelite’s future actions in Canaan would a part of God’s divine judgment upon the wicked Canaanites with whom he had been patient.

Fast forward about 400 years, and the Canaanites are ripe for judgment. When the Israelites come into the land of Canaan, the Canaanites believed that if they could have sex in Canaanite places of worship often enough, they would have sufficient rainfall to water their plants. Not only did the Canaanites have horrid sexual morals, the Canaanites held up morally repulsive gods as worthy of worship. The Canaanite god Anath, for example, walked on severed human heads through a pool of human blood that came up to her neck. Any culture that worships something like Anath is bound to have degenerated morals across the board.[7]

Thus, when the Israelites begin destroying the Canaanites, God is executing divine judgment upon them. So, we learn that God judges sin and that his judgment is sometimes temporal in nature.

However, what makes Joshua unique isn’t the fact that Joshua teaches that God judges sin; indeed, Joshua is far from being the only place that the Bible teaches that God brings penalties for sin. Jesus himself, whom Dawkins called “meek and mild”[8] and the opposite of the Old Testament God had a lot to say about God’s coming judgment. Indeed, Jesus said so much about hell and God’s impending judgment that some have called him “The Great Theologian of Hell.”[9] Perhaps what makes Joshua’s war narratives and other Old Testament passages like them unique is that they paint a disconcertingly clear glimpse at how devastating the punishment for sin really is.

Make no mistake about it: The entire Bible teaches that God’s judgment of sin is intense. We’ve all heard the horror stories of God’s judgment in the Old Testament, but the New Testament isn’t devoid of intense judgment. In the New Testament, Jesus himself tells a story about a rich man in hell begging for water and being denied.[10] Later, Paul would write that the “wages of sin is death.”[11] To this, the author of Hebrews adds that “it is a dreadful thing to fall into the hands of the living God,”[12] the one to whom all “is uncovered and laid bare.”[13] Finally, in the book of Revelation, the Bible says that “anyone whose name was not found written in the book of life was thrown into the lake of fire.”[14]

Perhaps the difference is that the New Testament talks about God’s one-day, future judgment. The Old Testament, however, talks about the judgment that God has already brought. Whereas we can put the New Testament’s judgment off like a rescheduled trip to the dentist, the Old Testament’s judgment is much too real; in the Old Testament, we see that God has come to settle accounts with his human creatures, and we simply don’t like that picture. But make no mistake about it, the New Testament says that the same style of judgment we see in Joshua is coming again. God is coming to settle accounts with you and with me, and the New Testament challenges us to be ready.

We can sit around our Sunday school classes and comfort ourselves saying that “God is love,” “God is kind,” and “God is patient;” however, we won’t be painting a complete picture. Each of these statements is certainly true; but, from the war narratives of Joshua, we get a much broader picture of God. From Joshua, we learn that the God of the Bible is not a tame puppy to be manipulated and coddled, but that he is instead a consuming fire[15] and not to be trifled with.

All of this may seem unsatisfactory to those who identify with Dawkins and think that the God of the Old Testament is rather unpleasant. For that, I’m truly sorry. As a Christian, I want everyone to know and love God, and I feel genuine remorse when people stumble over something on their way to faith in Christ. However, according to God, he is who he is,[16] and he’s not going to change to suit our preferences. From the entire Bible, not just the Old Testament, we learn that God is the judge of sin—whether we like it or not.

Notes & Sources

[1] Joshua 7:21

[2] Joshua 7:25b

[3] Joshua 6:21, CSB.

[4] Richard Dawkins, The God Delusion (New York, NY: Houghton Mifflin Harcourt Publishing Company, 2006), 51

[5] Cf. Deuteronomy 20:16-18

[6] Genesis 15:16

[7] Paul Copan, Is God a Moral Monster? Making Sense of the Old Testament God (Grand Rapids, MI: Baker Books, 2011), 159-60.

[8] Dawkins, 52

[9] Rogers, Michael Allen. “What Did Jesus Teach About Hell?” Crossway. May 27, 2014. https://www.crossway.org/articles/what-did-jesus-teach-about-hell/ (accessed April 26, 2018).

[10] Luke 16:19-26

[11] Romans 6:23

[12] Hebrews 10:31

[13] Hebrews 4:13

[14] Revelation 20:15

[15] Hebrews 12:29

[16] Exodus 3:14

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