The God of the New Testament is fairly comfortable to square with and accept, especially when reading from a 21st century Western perspective. He is merciful and kind, walking the Earth as a humble man who heals the sick, dresses down the powerful, and ultimately dies brutally to absolve the sin of humanity. Even 2,000 years later, Jesus maintains such a prominent place in our culture – simply put, there has never been another like him, and his actions and teachings make it almost irresistible to gravitate towards him.
This loving God, however, seems like such a far cry from the God of the Old Testament. While the Bible claims that they are the same God, it sure doesn’t seem like it. We have Jesus telling us to love our enemies and to turn the other cheek, but if you go back to the book of Joshua, you have God instructing the Israelites to invade enemy cities and kill every man, woman, and child, leaving no survivors. Take this passage about the fall of Jericho:
“They devoted the city to the Lord and destroyed with the sword every living thing in it – men and women, young and old, cattle, sheep and donkeys.” (Joshua 6:21 NIV)
This is pretty par for the course, and we see it over and over again as the Israelites drive their enemies from the promised land. God is pretty explicit about the fact that He doesn’t want anybody left breathing in the cities that the Israelites conquer. The explanation that we’re given is that if the Israelites were to leave survivors, then these survivors would integrate their own religious and cultural traditions into Israelite society and denigrate the traditions associated with the Israelite’s status as God’s chosen people. While that makes some sense, it is still difficult to stomach…killing everybody, even children? Going so far as to kill all of the sheep and cattle too? What kind of God would not only allow this, but would actually seem to mandate it?
I think this is in important topic, and one that can cause hang-ups for Christians and non-Christians alike. In fact, you’ll see a lot of popular modern atheist personalities like Sam Harris reference these Old Testament stories to highlight the fact that religion is barbaric and it is silly of us to take any of these ancient writings seriously. One important thing to remember as we embark on this journey is that, with God’s revelation through Christ, we have to look at the entire Bible through a Christological lens. We’ll dive a little bit more into what that means, but I think it’s important to break down the actual historicity of the Old Testament stories as well as how the most famous early Christian thinkers analyzed them.
First, let’s broadly discuss what the Bible is, and what it isn’t. The Bible is a collection of poems, songs, historical accounts, and creative narratives telling a story that begins with Adam and culminates in Jesus. This story walks us through God’s character, His relationship with mankind, and how He ultimately plans to redeem a fallen world. The Bible isn’t a completely literal, straightforward document that is meant for us to swallow unquestioningly and spit out at appropriate (or inappropriate) intervals. There’s a reason that Christians refer to Scripture as “the living Word”; even now, it is meant to be debated, discussed, and taught. No matter how well you think you know the Bible, I can promise that there are layers to your favorite Biblical stories that can still cause major “aha” moments even after dozens of readings.
Let’s latch on to that word “stories” here for a moment – as we all know, the Bible is full of some of the most famous stories ever told. There is the story of Adam and Eve in the Garden of Eden, David and Goliath, Noah’s ark, Samson and Delilah, and the greatest story every told, the story of Jesus Christ. A number of studies in recent years have shown that storytelling is the fundamental method by which humans communicate ideas to one another. In one sense, it adds up that the God who created humanity in his image and constructed the human mind would reveal Himself through compelling, rich stories that teach us not only His character and the ways of His kingdom but also how we should behave towards Him and towards each other. The fulfillment of this idea comes in the historical personhood of Jesus Christ. God takes the form of a man as His greatest revelation, living the perfect life and spinning the perfect yarn, a narrative so powerful that it quite literally split history in two.
When we think of history in a modern context, we think of something like a textbook. We want names, dates, and a dry description of exactly what happened and who the major players were. Ancient cultures saw history quite differently, often intertwining the art of creative storytelling much more closely with the historical facts. To quote a fascinating breakdown from National Geographic, “Stories allow us to share information in a memorable way, which might have helped our ancestors cooperate and survive. By telling a story rather than merely reciting dry facts, we remember the details more clearly.” Ancient historians were generally less concerned with specific details and more concerned with presenting the key takeaways from an event and embellishing things a bit to make the whole deal more memorable to the listener.
This brings us to the Old Testament. There are a great number of historical details included in books of the Old Testament that have been confirmed by archaeological discovery. There are also a great number of details that have neither been confirmed nor proven false; we simply haven’t found enough to say one way or another. For some Old Testament stories, like the fall of Jericho, it is impossible to draw a real conclusion. Let’s hone in on Jericho, because I think it actually represents a perfect example of the concept I am trying to get at here.
The Biblical narrative tells us that the Israelites were able to besiege and conquer the enemy city of Jericho by heeding God’s commands and ultimately knocking down the walls with the sounding of trumpets. In the early 1930s, British archaeologist John Garstang excavated the remains of a system of collapsed walls in the region where scholars suspected to be the location of ancient Jericho. A re-excavation by fellow Brit Kathleen Kenyon in the 1950s showed that these walls were likely knocked down by an Egyptian campaign mentioned in a number of historical documents.
These books of the Old Testament don’t actually concern themselves with being strictly “historical documents” at all. While a number of accounts in the Old Testament will mention local kings and customs to give a very general idea of timeframe, the focus is generally on the events themselves. Over the centuries, scholars have wrung their hands at the seeming impossibility of the Biblical stories. The Israelites wandered for forty years in a desert that should have taken two weeks to cross? Do we have any historical evidence of this? Goliath was almost seven feet tall? Sure, that’s possible biologically, but do we have any other evidence in the ancient world of anyone being that tall?
I’ve already spilled far too much ink on this section of the article, but I’ll conclude by saying that these books of the Old Testament are concerned with passing along theological concepts, not historical truths. While the broad strokes of these events likely happened (the exodus from Egypt, the desert wanderings, battles for the promised land, etc.), they almost certainly did not happen in the exact way that the Bible describes. If we were to hop in a time machine and pull an ancient Israelite back to the present for questioning, he would likely be quite puzzled by the fact that we were even trying to understand the historicity of these documents at all. These are stories that illustrate the mission and character of God, not history textbooks.
Where does this view of Old Testament historical accounts leave us when it comes to unpacking the descriptions of extreme violence we see recorded in them? I want to briefly go back to something I mentioned earlier in the article, that “Christological lens” through which we must view the Bible. The Bible, in short, is a long but cohesive story that culminates in the life, death, and resurrection of Jesus Christ. Every single book of the Bible points in some way to this event, either prophesying it or commenting on it after the fact. When we look at the Bible this way, we can understand that the character of God is most fully revealed to us in the story of Christ, which helps us to interpret some of the more baffling accounts in the Old Testament.
Before I get into what early Christian thinkers posited about these stories, I’d like to note that we tend to pull a lot of Old Testament accounts completely out of their ancient context and examine them from a modern view, totally stripping them of any cultural or historic information that could help us to more fully understand them. The Old Testament is an account of God setting a certain group of people apart from the world, so that through them He would be able to fully reveal Himself to all humanity. This means they had special laws that set them apart from other tribes, special religious customs, and a special understanding of their own history. These things all seem strange to us today, but when you can look at the timeline and see how this led ultimately to Christ, the pieces start to fit together quite snugly.
Anyway, let’s get into how the earliest Christian thinkers examined violence in the Old Testament. I’ll list out three titans of the early Church and their stances:
- Origen: The violence in the Old Testament is allegorical, as are most of the stories presented in each book. They are meant to teach us spiritual truths. The Israelites slaying all of the sinful people of Jericho, for example, is meant to show us that when we are removing evil from our lives, we must remove every last shred to be truly effective. Half measures avail us nothing.
- Augustine: We know through Jesus Christ that God is all good and all powerful. Therefore, we as humans can’t criticize His actions. We can either trust that there was a greater purpose for Old Testament violence, or affirm that the God of our world has the right to move people from one place (life) to another place (the afterlife) to serve His greater purposes.
- Irenaeus: Reading the Bible from beginning to end actually shows us God’s progressive revelation to mankind. The ancient Israelites had only barely begun to understand God and His will, acting in ways that benefitted them but were perhaps not actually sanctioned by God Himself. The full revelation of God was not made until the resurrection of Christ, which is why we must use this event to understand the rest of the Bible.
While all three of these hermeneutical explanations have some value, I think Origen’s analysis rings most true to the intentions of the original Hebrew authors of the Old Testament. While we don’t have commentaries from those original authors to shine a brighter light on their intentions, we do have Jewish philosophers like Philo of Alexandria, who famously argued against rabbinic scholars of his age (~20 BCE) and posited the allegorical nature of key Old Testament stories. Philo noted that a number of these stories had real-world historical basis, but were written primarily to communicate spiritual teachings.
Origen draws on this idea, as well as the writings of Paul the Apostle, who alluded to allegorical ideas (such as Christ being the rock that follows the Israelites in the desert) in the Old Testament in several of his epistles. While all Christians would affirm that the Bible is “true,” ideas like those of Paul and Origen seem to create contradictions. With the fall of Jericho, for example, the Bible seems to be recording a historical event. If we say that this event did not happen historically in the way that it is described in the Bible, does this mean that the Bible is not “true”?
As I’ve mentioned several times now, the Bible only really makes sense when examined through the lens of Christ. When looked at as the full, complete narrative that it is, we can affirm that the Bible is “true” in that it imparts real, spiritual truths even if specific stories have been bolstered by legendary storytelling tradition. Even still, this leaves us with what seems to be a difficult question: even if these stories aren’t totally “true” in the literal, historic sense, how can a good God be depicted as ever condoning the horrors of genocide?
I think the real answer can actually be found in mostly leaning on Origen’s approach but also bringing in a bit of Irenaeus’s analysis. The two aren’t mutually exclusive, and I’ve often found with hermeneutics that the most compelling truth usually lies somewhere between the major interpretations. When we read other ancient texts, we take context into consideration – the geographical setting, the time, the cultural traditions of the people, all of these things play a part. While the Bible is the Word of God, it is the Word of God filtered and recorded through people at different points in history.
Taking the Irenaean slant, we can say that while the Israelites received favor and guidance from God (deliverance from Egypt, survival in the desert, arrival in the promised land, etc.) we can also say that the Israelites may have interpreted this guidance as an affirmation from God to lay waste to their enemies. We can see from their other behavior, like the idol-worshipping, that they did not fully understand the character of God and often misunderstood His will. This fact doesn’t make Old Testament accounts untrue – they are true to the full knowledge of the Israelites, comprehending God’s will as best they can prior to His full revelation in Christ.
Rolled into this, we can start to see Origen’s allegorical approach begin to make more sense. There is the famous story in Genesis where Jacob is out in the wilderness and enters into a wrestling match with a stranger, who is an angel of God:
“So Jacob was left alone, and a man wrestled with him until daybreak. When the man saw that he could not overpower him, he touched the socket of Jacob’s hip so that his hip was wrenched as he wrestled with the man. Then the man said, ‘Let me go, for it is daybreak.’
But Jacob replied, ‘I will not let you go unless you bless me.’
The man asked, ‘What is your name?’
‘Jacob,’ he answered.
Then the man said, ‘Your name will no longer be Jacob, but Israel, because you have struggled with God and with humans and have overcome.'” (Genesis 32:24-28 NIV)
With stories like these, it could not be more clear that the literal details of the account are far less important than the theological meaning. We aren’t meant to read this and wonder how you could wrench the socket of someone’s hip by touching it. We’re meant to read it, and discuss it, and draw spiritual lessons that can carry us. Here we see that God honors perseverance, especially in our seeking of Him – Jacob would not let the man go until he blessed him. In our seeking and struggle to find God, we also find a new identity in Him, just as Jacob was given a new name. We become new creations, His children. Returning to the concept of looking at the Old Testament through the lens of Christ, this idea of new identity is brought to fruition with Jesus:
“Therefore if anyone is in Christ, he is a new creature; the old things passed away; behold, new things have come.” (1 Corinthians 5:17 NIV).
Fusing It Together
To bring this point home, I’d like to conclude by returning to the violent conduct of the Israelites towards their neighboring tribes in the promised land. This is where the Irenaen and Origen-al (term coined by me) views fuse together quite well. The Israelites saw their total conquest of the promised land as ordained by God, although this might not have been the full meaning of God’s revelation to them at that point in history. As they expanded their conquest, they likely killed quite a few enemy soldiers, but in the Old Testament we get accounts that they are wiping out entire cities, killing men, women, children, and even the livestock. These aspects seem clearly more allegorical than literal, showing that evil in any form must be dealt with completely.
Looking at it through that Christological lens again, this aligns perfectly with Christ’s teachings on Christian morality, i.e. “If your right eye is causing you to sin, you must tear it out.” When Christians are dealing with evil in their lives, whether it be addiction or temptation or anything else, half measures simply won’t suffice. We must get rid of the evil and cast it out completely, just as the Israelites completely destroyed their enemies so that these enemies couldn’t taint Israel’s pure relationship with God by introducing idol worship and immorality.
As I’ve mentioned in previous posts, I’ve struggled with drinking in the past, and one of my first solutions was switching from hard liquor to beer in an attempt to slow my alcohol consumption and keep myself away from extreme drunkenness. This approach got me nowhere, and I actually ended up drinking more as I felt that beer was “safer” for me than hard liquor and therefore okay for large-scale consumption. Instead of casting out the evil entirely, I tried to make a peace treaty and spare some of its place in my life. The only way I ever got over my alcohol problem was to tear out my right eye (figuratively), to get alcohol out of my life completely and not let a single drop pass my lips. In the stories of the Israelites and their conquest, we can learn important theological lessons but also important practical lessons that ultimately give us a fuller view of what it means to live the Christian life.
I’ve rambled on far too long in this article, but I hope some of what I’ve said makes sense. I fully encourage you to read the Bible for yourself; it’s been much maligned in modern society as an ancient, outdated text that should have no say in our lives, but when you approach it as the original writers intended, I think you’ll find that it is richly useful as a guiding force in day-t0-day living.