Violence in the Old Testament

I have been investigating the Koran recently and I could not ignore the frequent, tangible call to violent ‘punishment’ of infidels. I have been outraged by this BUT I can’t deny that our own religious texts also projects a God that sometimes is unequivocally violent:

Yahweh said to me, "You see, I am starting to give you Sihon and his country. Begin the conquest by seizing his country… And Yahweh our God handed him over to us: we defeated him and his sons and all his people. We captured all his towns and laid all these towns under the curse of destruction: men, women and children, we left no survivors… (Deuteronomy 2:31-35)

There are many other examples of God endorsing extreme violence in the Old Testament. I have looked for thorough explanations of this on the normally very reliable Catholic Answers, but I can’t fine anything that is very convincing.

Originally Posted by FightingFat
So in the OT we have a sketch and Jesus came and coloured it in- with love?

There may be a lot of truth in the above quote from this thread but I think CA needs something much more comprehensive, especially in the current climate of religious violence. Please excuse me if something does indeed exist and I’ve missed it!


This is a difficult subject for many people; I must confess to being a little uncomfortable with it myself. I would suggest first, though, that much of the violence recorded in the Old Testament–the intertribal wars in the book of Judges, or the court feuds in Samuel and Kings–is just recorded. God did not advocate those conflicts.

The example you cite falls in a different category: this case, and the book of Joshua, are violence directly ordered by God. Noah’s flood and the destruction of Sodom and Gomorrah also fall into this category. I would suggest that this differs from the Koran advocating violence against infidels in that it records the situation at a particular point in history, in a specific place. It is not a general statement of “Go out and do this.”

Once we recognize this difference, we can start asking whether there were “extenuating circumstances” in these cases–whether there was something about the Canaanite societies that justified their being exterminated. I have heard, though not from an authoritative source, that sacrificing one’s children to idols was the thing that made God decide that these societies were better off being destroyed. (This puts the question of abortion into a slightly different light, no?)

I hope this helps. I certainly don’t have a definitive answer.

  • Liberian

[quote=Liberian] I have heard, though not from an authoritative source, that sacrificing one’s children to idols was the thing that made God decide that these societies were better off being destroyed. (This puts the question of abortion into a slightly different light, no?)

It is utter, utter hypocrisy to kill a whole society because they don’t respect life!

Back to the main point:
Why did God even bother to endorse violence at one time (parts of the OT) and reject it later through the example of Christ? God is not fickle. These are very, very important questions. There is comprehensive apologia on why Catholics call priests ‘Father’, but nothing on the apparently contradictory OT violent God/ NT loving God to be found on Catholic Answers, even though (in my experience) it is one of the principle questions most non-believers have with the faith.

I have seen people write that while we can focus on what seems to be unnecessary violence and even seeming injustice in the OT, we must trust that there is not injustice on the part of God and we must correct that view with our own awareness of his infinite love which has made salvation possible through the death of His own Son. However, this seems to be little different from the Muslim response to the call to violence found in the Koran, that is to point to another Koranic verse that emphasises the sacredness of human life. It still begs the question as well: why did God even bother to endorse violence in the first place if He is non-changing?

I have heard some Catholic religious say that it is not God that changes but people’s perception of Him. God never endorsed the killings found in the OT and it is in stead illustrative of the incomplete vision of God the Israelites had at the time. As the Bible progresses we move forward from an angry image of God towards the loving image found in the NT. I’m not sure if this is really the Church’s teaching and it certainly begs the question: why do we say ‘this is the word of the Lord’ after we hear violent OT readings at Mass if, according to the above theory, it isn’t even God’s word??

Scripture speaks at two levels – the plaintext level; and the sensus plenior or “fuller sense” level.

At the plaintext level, God not only puts entire nations “under the ban,” demanding the death of every baby, child, woman and man, but He demands the execution of people who engage in beastiality, homosexual acts, adulterers, and even a person who pick up sticks on the Sabbath!. See Numbers 15:32-35.

Nations placed “under the ban” may be history which teaches theology: “Human flesh is consummately evil, so that outside of the grace of the cross salvation is impossible” – something like that.

At the plaintext level, death sentences for individual sex sins may be a Hebrew logic game. Christ hints at this in the story of the adulteress in John’s gospel. Christ said to those who wanted the Law of Moses applied to her by having her stoned to death, “Let he who has not sinned throw the first stone.” I.e., “Go ahead and kill her under Mosaic law – BUT YOU’D DAMN WELL BETTER BE PERFECT IF YOU DO!” That would make that part of Mosaic Law a very typically “Jewish” requirement – something in which the insight of the rules is implied, not express.

The requirement that someone be killed for picking up sticks on the Sabbath may be a Christ foreshadowing…

Here is someone Who WAS killed when He picked up a “stick” on the “Sabbath”…

I understand that where God commands violence we can learn from it at a spiritual level, e.g. with regards to societies being condemned to death for their sins, it is the consequence of their decision to sin in the 1st place and therefore to choose (spiritual) death.

If God is non-changing, why is it unreasonable for Islamic terrorists to claim they have been ordered by God to carry out the atrocities we see so often against ‘infidels’? God asked Moses to kill whole societies whose sins are not very different from those prevalent in the West.

If the answer is that Jesus shows us the Divine way, that is to ‘love our enemies’, why does He appear to say something quite different in the OT? Is it, as I suggested before, that the OT is a rather distorted vision of the Lord, and in that case is it correct to describe those texts as ‘the word of God’???


You wrote: “If God is non-changing, why is it unreasonable for Islamic terrorists to claim they have been ordered by God to carry out the atrocities we see so often against ‘infidels’? God asked Moses to kill whole societies whose sins are not very different from those prevalent in the West.”

A couple of things to point out here: first, revelation in the OT is not the complete revelation. Although God is unchanging, revelation is been progressive—in the OT, God is beginning with small steps, getting through to people’s thick skulls (in a manner that they can understand), that they need to turn to him in order to be a mighty people: turn to Him—vanquish your foes, get fed, prosper, receive a Promised Land, etc. Turn away—all hell breaks loose. The NT develops that with further revelation, so that we can see that when we turn to him we vanquish our foe (Satan); we prosper (we have Christ, the ultimate treasure, dwelling within us), we’re fed (The Eucharist) and we receive the Promised Land (the Beatific Vision). The OT is the earthly and earthy prefigurement—the NT on training wheels. I think God in the OT is speaking to the people in a manner that they can understand, suited to their level: for example, in order for them (and us) to grasp the more sophisticated understanding of vanquishing a spiritual foe, he has them conquer earthly ones first by following him.

Secondly, God is the author of life. That being the case, the killings that appear to be directed by God in the OT perhaps have outcomes that we are unaware of. Since I believe that God is Good (good itself, that is), then I simply have to ask myself if I trust God that that is so, and that those people that were killed in the OT were treated with the same justice and mercy that I trust I will receive. The answer is, yes, I can trust God. Jesus made that clear.

Oh, and regarding the Muslims: Christians and Jews both understand that the violence in the OT was specific to the building of the nation of Israel. No one (at least no one with any legitimate religious authority) thinks that what was appropriate then is appropriate now. That’s not the case with Muslims, as the jihad element is not tied to a particular time and location in history.

A better way to say it is: God never changes, but the stuff He has to deal with does.

From my post in anothe thread:

There are a few reasons why death was used so often back then. For one, there wasn’t even anything close to an organized society which could have some sort of police force and run things authoritatively. There was in Egypt of course, but these commandments are given to the Jews when they have been freed and are going to have to live on their own out in the wilderness for decades. Also, because they were going to be traveling a lot, there was no way to set up a jail to hold people. All of this put together simply made death the only real way to punish somebody, especially for harsher crimes like murder, because anything less would result in the murderer killing somebody else.

Some may say that banishment would be a better punishment. This might have been true in later years, but in fact that would have been a harsher punishment than death at the time of Exodus. Any man banished would have to wander the desert - all alone, and with no food, and no water. It wasn’t like today or even the middle ages where there were settlements and villages here and there. One could walk hundreds and hundreds of miles before finding even the smallest settlement back then. To sentence a man to that would be no different from sentencing him to a long, painful, tortorus death, so it was a lot more humane to just do it and get it over with. (Moses, of course, survived this, but only because he was God’s chosen prophet and His banishment was part of God’s plan to lead him to Mt. Sinai)

Also, it has been often pointed out that the Jewish people as a whole were like God’s child or children. Parents are obviously more strict with their young children than their older children. God’s people were in their “young” stages. Because of this, he was stricter. When they got “older”, in the time of Christ, God, just like a parent, treated them with more freedom and responsibility. That’s why the Jews could reject God, just like teenagers can reject their parents. (If we continue to anaolgy, we see that God no longer practices very much of any control on people and lets them do all sorts of vile and horrible things people do today, much like parents once their kids grow up and move out can’t say much anymore).

One last point is that, for as much as the Jews were civilized at the time of the Exodus, they were still a relatively primitive people with a lot of uncivility to them. God pretty much had to put such harsh penalties on people to knock some sense into them. He couldn’t have the society develop into one where crime was rampant and nobody cared about anything, so he had to be strict until society was at a point where it kept itself in check without His having to really watch over things.

Wow guys, thanks. There really needs to be more info on this in the Apologetics section.

Do you have any examples where God actually directly orders the death of a person through another person and sees it through. As opposed to a reading which could conceivably be read as God foretelling events - as in something like - I Will Allow a certain event or act, but I Do Not order it. “I will give you this land…” but perhaps satan ordered and demanded from God a war between the lands…
Because I think that satan has in some part of the Scriptures stood before God fighting for some outcome of his own.
…And then there is Pope LeoXIIIs’? vision where the devil demanded power and time to act to destroy and God gave both to him.
Just wondering if violence could fit into a framework such as that.

Some years ago, I was asked to lead a group of third-graders at religious instruction. Along the way. we included the Bible in the curriculum - selected stories - and the first one to trouble me was Noah. Would God really regret that he had created humankind, then deliberately drown everyone alive except one family? Sounded outraheous to me. Even if there was notorious sin, how about all the little children and yet unborn children who would have died as a result? How does that line up with the sanctity of life?

Later, we came to the story of Joshua and Jericho. God directed him to murder every man, woman and child (except a prostitute and her family) once the walls came down. What sort of God was that?

 We may try to explain such a cruel God away - the people deserved it, etc. - but I never bought that. Would it have been just to go into Germany or Japan and slaughtered everyone because those people had done evil, supported their evil governmentsm etc,? 

 The Old Testament is full of atrocity stories involved God's commandments that the ancient Hebrews slaughter their enemies. What about Saul and the Amalekites? God ordered him to kill every one of them.

 This is one reason why I do not take the Bible literally. If I did, I would have trouble embracing Christianity. Fortunately, Jesus came and said: "Ye have heard it said: you shall love your neighbor but hate your enemy. But I say unto you, love your enemy...." Frankly, if our beloved nation had exuded more love and less "bomb 'em' years ago we wouldn't be in our present mess. I wish the USA would seriously try to lead the world that way. Naive? Was Christ naive? I don't think so.

  God bless the whole world - no exceptions.

I believe in the OT God expects us to be morraly outraged. Job accused God of being unfair and demanded to pleed his case. His friend’s logic went like this, “God is punishing you, therefore, you sinned.” But God Himself called Job “blameless and upright.” I think it’s a test to see how willing we are to give up on God. Even when we have no rational reason to agree with Him, will we let go of Him? How strong is our love? Also, I heard this one quote from one guy, “No inch of this earth is safe. It’s all a battlefield between satan and God.” Because the world chooses satan, the ground is “cursed because of it.”

I still don’t get it though. Why was God so violent?

You said angry God changing to loving God. I think His anger is also a way of love which punish justly against their evil or wretched ways which. In a way it is the context of longing for them to be good and holy set God above all and love others as themselves.

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