How to Respond to Old Testament Violence?

Often when speaking of Catholicism to others, they have a problem with the Violence of God in the Old Testament. Specifically, the violence performed for minor tasks, such as when Uzzah tries to stop the Ark from falling over and is killed for touching it, or when Elisha kills the boys for making fun of his being bald, or other rules about killing, many seen in Deuteronomy.

What is a good way to respond to these points? One can agree they are certainly startling.

The belief was that a human could not come into contact with the Divine, or else (since the Divine was absolute holiness and we are sinful) the person would die. There are many examples in the Bible where the person averts his eyes, lest he look at God and die.

That’s a completely different concept than saying, “if I look at God or touch Him, He’ll kill me”. Can you see the distinction? It’s not that this is ‘God performing violence on Uzziah’, as you’ve claimed; it’s that there is a cause-and-effect relationship going on here. If you put your hand onto a hot burner on the stove, you’ll be burned. It’s not as if God saw you put your hand on the burner and said to Himself, “yippee! Now I have the opportunity to punish him! Yay!” :wink:

, or when Elisha kills the boys for making fun of his being bald

I’m sorry… I thought this was a thread about God committing violent acts in the OT. :wink:

Is the source of discomfort the notion that humans are capable of violence and killing? If so, why is that reflected back on God, such that Catholicism is to be held responsible that humans are sinful? :hmmm:

, or other rules about killing, many seen in Deuteronomy.

Often, this is a reference to wiping out entire cultures (including women and children). A careful examination of Scripture demonstrates that this didn’t happen – that is, those peoples continue to show up later in the Bible. Therefore, it’s evidence that ethnic cleansing isn’t what happened… :wink:

I’ve struggled with this issue a lot, especially 1 Samuel 15, where God instructs Saul to exterminate the Amalekites, including women, children, animals, etc. Scholarly Catholic footnotes tend to vary widely on their interpretation of this.

The Douay-Rheims (Challoner) footnote says, “The great Master of life and death, (who cuts off one half of mankind whilst they are children) has been pleased sometimes to ordain that children should be put to the sword, in detestation of the crimes of their parents, and that they might not live to follow the same wicked ways. :eek:] But without such ordinance of God it is not allowable, in any wars, how just soever, to kill children.”

The footnote in the NAB has this: “Under the ban: in such wars of extermination, all things (men, cities, beasts, etc.) were to be blotted out; nothing could be reserved for private use. The interpretation of God’s will here attributed to Samuel is in keeping with the abhorrent practices of blood revenge prevalent among pastoral, seminomadic peoples such as the Hebrews had recently been. The slaughter of the innocent has never been in conformity with the will of God.”

My Orthodox Study Bible doesn’t say anything about this passage.

Naturally, I find the second interpretation much more satisfying. I look forward to seeing what others have to say about this.

Doing certain things back when were punishable by death, but aren’t now.
Maybe disrespecting a prophet was one of them.

Maybe another way to look at the man who dropped dead attempting to save the Ark was the sacrifice of his own life to save the ark from being dishonored. And he would gladly do it again if needed.

Canaanites-Amalekites, reasons for destruction, an article that is well worth the read.

May God bless and keep you. May God’s face shine on you. May God be kind to you and give you peace.

Although he doesn’t address the specific examples you cited, perhaps you might find Jimmy Akin’s article on the general topic helpful:

Hard Sayings of the Old Testament

I have also heard great things about this more recent book:

Dark Passages of the Bible: Engaging Scripture with Benedict XVI and St. Thomas Aquinas by Matthew Ramage

That’s exactly how I have always looked at Uzzah’s death. It is not God “punishing” him but is rather the natural consequence of man’s sinfulness coming into contact with God’s holiness.

I actually usually use this passage in teaching about Mary’s Immaculate Conception. Uzzah just touched the Ark. Imagine what would have happened to Mary by actually being the Ark for nine months if she were tainted by Original Sin!

I think it is very helpful to interpret the Bible with the mind of the Church and by comparing other passages that help enlighten us about the meaning of more difficult passages. These verses, for example, show that God does not like violence: Eze. 33:11, 2 Pet. 3:9, Eze. 18:23, Lam. 3:33, Eze. 18:32, Wis. 1:13, Matt. 18:14

These verses tell us some of the things that God wants to teach us through the violent passages of the Bible: 1 Corinthians 10:5-11, Deuteronomy 9:4, Jeremiah 18:7-8, Leviticus 18:25-28

These verses show that it is not immoral for God to take someone’s life: Job 1:21, 1 Samuel 2:6, 2 Kings 5:7, Deuteronomy 32:39

And these verses show that the violence of the Old Testament doesn’t perfectly reflect the will of God: John 8:2-11, Jeremiah 31:28-33, Isaiah 9:5-6, Isaiah 42:1-4

One thing we can conclude from all this Scripture is that the penalties and wars in the Bible are there to teach us the consequences of sin. I don’t think the Bible wants us to see violence and death as a good thing. I think it wants us to see violence and death as a terrible consequence of sin, and sometimes God makes this clear by inflicting a swift and/or violent death on sinners. Which is something only God can morally do, because only He has absolute rights over life and death.

The Church has occasionally spoken about the violent passages of Scripture in authoritative documents. An example is the document Verbum Domini by Pope Benedict XVI. It says:

Verbum Domini 42 - “[Some] passages in the Bible [contain] violence and immorality [and can] prove obscure and difficult. Here it must be remembered first and foremost that biblical revelation is deeply rooted in history. God’s plan is manifested progressively and it is accomplished slowly, in successive stages and despite human resistance. God chose a people and patiently worked to guide and educate them.”

Verbum Domini 42 - “Revelation is suited to the cultural and moral level of distant times and thus describes facts and customs, such as cheating and trickery, and acts of violence and massacre, without explicitly denouncing the immorality of such things. This can be explained by the historical context, yet it can cause the modern reader to be taken aback.”

Verbum Domini 42 - “[It] would be a mistake to neglect those passages of Scripture that strike us as problematic. Rather, we should be aware that the correct interpretation of these passages requires a degree of expertise, acquired through a training that interprets the texts in their historical-literary context and within the Christian perspective which has [the Gospel] as its ultimate hermeneutical key.”

See also the Catechism:

CCC 1964 - “under the…Old Covenant [there were] people who possessed the charity and grace of the Holy Spirit…[and] there exist [wicked] men under the New Covenant [who are] still distanced from the perfection of the New Law: the fear of punishment and certain temporal promises have been necessary, even under the New Covenant, to incite them to [virtue].”

CCC 1008 - “Death is a consequence of sin. The Church’s Magisterium, as authentic interpreter of the affirmations of Scripture and Tradition, teaches that death entered the world on account of man’s sin. … Death was therefore contrary to the plans of God the Creator and entered the world as a consequence of sin.”

Let me know if any of that is helpful. God bless!

I am not a great scholar, but this is what was explained to me:

In the Old Testament the pagan nations were practicing things such as temple prostitution, and throwing babies into the fire to appease their god/gods.

The Israelites were commanded to kill them, and not to intermarry with them. (see what happened when Ahaz married Jezebel).

God is just and merciful and will judge each individual pagan rightly.

The Lord desired a pure race that worshipped Him alone in preparation for the Incarnation of the Second Person of the Blessed Trinity.

There was always a remnant of Israelites that remained true to the Lord; mostly they disobeyed and wreaked havoc among themselves.

The Lord draws straight with crooked lines.

Thank you…this is very helpful!

I think the answer’s pretty obvious and is given throughout Scripture: anyone who disobeys God’s commands is monstrously evil. So if anyone who disobeys God’s commands comes into contact with God then they’ll die.

  1. Uzzah and the Ark

There’s a couple of pieces of info needed here to understand the full issue. When they were moving the Ark, they were already sinning. God had proscribed very specifically how the Ark was to be moved. It had to be carried on poles by priests, in a manner showing honor. And yet they were moving it in a cart pulled by a beast of burden. They were directly disobeying God in how they were to care for the Ark. King David disobeyed God by having it in a cart instead of being carried as commanded by God. The Ark would never have begun tipping over if it had been carried properly. Uzzah was participating in this sin, and he was the one who suffered the consequences when the inevitable happened.

  1. Elisha, bears and the young men.

Again, we need a little context. The passages state that the two bears killed 42 of the young men or boys (depending on translation). Now this number may be a bit overinflated to signify a large number, or it may be completely accurate. Either way, what does this tell us about the size of the crowd that was taunting and harrasing the prophet Elisha? For that many to be killed, there had to be hundreds of young men surrounding him and yelling at him. That’s not a small group, that’s a mob. And it is highly disrespectful, and blasphemous to insult and threaten a prophet of God. God sents them to speak a message to us, and when we insult, threaten or reject the prophet, we are doing so to God Himself. We are rejecting God.

Some will say the taunts they hurled were nothing, and meaningless, and not deserving of death. But that is an anachronism. We are reading our culture of today into that culture and time. We don’t know exactly how insulting those comments were back then, and how they were intended. Think about other comments that we can make today, that if they were said 50-100 years ago, would have gotten you slapped or punched in the face (or worse). And the same is true in reverse.

So in context, we understand that this was an unruly mob of hundreds of young men/boys who were taunting and harrasing a prophet and messenger of God. It’s not a bunch of six year olds playing sandlot baseball.

This was perfect! Just what I was looking for.

Everybody else, your comments were also extremely helpful. Thanks for the help.

I respond by not taking the Old Testament Literally. Some of those stories did not actually and literally happen, but were/are metaphors.


Can you give an example of “[one] of those stories [that] did not actually and literally happen, but were/are metaphors”? I’d also like to see some evidence that it was only a metaphor.

So you don’t take it literally because you don’t like what’s in it?

If I may chip in here -
There was no world-wide flood 4000 years ago. That would have been the greatest mass killing.

Those, for instance, who complain of the atrocities and treacheries of the judges and prophets of Israel have really got a notion in their head that has nothing to do with the subject. They are too Christian. They are reading back into the pre-Christian scriptures a purely Christian idea the idea of saints, the idea that the chief instruments of God are very particularly good men. This is a deeper, a more daring, and a more interesting idea than the old Jewish one. It is the idea that innocence has about it something terrible which in the long run makes and re-makes empires and the world. But the Old Testament idea was much more what may be called the common-sense idea, that strength is strength, that cunning is cunning, that worldly success is worldly success, and that Jehovah uses these things for His own ultimate purpose, just as He uses natural forces or physical elements. He uses the strength of a hero as He uses that of a Mammoth without any particular respect for the Mammoth. I cannot comprehend how it is that so many simple-minded sceptics have read such stories as the fraud of Jacob and supposed that the man who wrote it (whoever he was) did not know that Jacob was a sneak just as well as we do. The primeval human sense of honour does not change so much as that. But these simple-minded sceptics are, like the majority of modern sceptics, Christians. They fancy that the patriarchs must be meant for patterns; they fancy that Jacob was being set up as some kind of saint; and in that case I do not wonder that they are a little startled. That is not the atmosphere of the Old Testament at all. The heroes of the Old Testament are not the sons of God, but the slaves of God, gigantic and terrible slaves, like the genii, who were the slaves of Aladdin.

The central idea of the great part of the Old Testament may be called the idea of the loneliness of God. God is not the only chief character of the Old Testament; God is properly the only character in the Old Testament. Compared with His clearness of purpose all the other wills are heavy and automatic, like those of animals; compared with His actuality all the sons of flesh are shadows. Again and again the note is struck, “With whom hath he taken counsel?” “I have trodden the wine press alone, and of the peoples there was no man with me.” All the patriarchs and prophets are merely His tools or weapons; for the Lord is a man of war. He uses Joshua like an axe or Moses like a measuring-rod. For Him Samson is only a sword and Isaiah a trumpet. The saints of Christianity are supposed to be like God, to be, as it were, little statuettes of Him. The Old Testament hero is no more supposed to be of the same nature as God than a saw or a hammer is supposed to be of the same shape as the carpenter.

Guess God was wrong about that one then.

No, just the writers of the OT. There are dozens of flood stories around. They are generally taken as mythical.

The Babylonian story (Epic of Gilgamesh) preceded the OT account.

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