7 Keys to Understanding Violence in the Old Testament

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It’s hard to imagine anyone today who is familiar with the Bible not being concerned about the violence in the Old Testament. It’s a fashionable bomb tossed by the so-called new atheists, and the easiest way for critics of Christianity to dismiss the Bible. To hear them talk, on every page of the Old Testament cities are burned to the ground, whole populations annihilated. Yahweh, the God of Israel, is in turn portrayed as a wrathful tribal deity constantly calling his people to commit atrocities in his name.

The problem of violence in the Old Testament centers mainly around the stories of Israel’s struggle to settle the land of Canaan. These stories center on the books of Joshua and Judges. So establish some starting points by looking in a general way at the question of violence and war in the Old Testament. Then in the installments to follow, we’ll turn specifically to Joshua and Judges.

All these presentations will share one important conviction: central to getting the Bible right is hearing it in its own cultural and historical setting. This is not just good scholarship; it’s good listening. That’s why I’m excited to be sharing with you from a place called Bedhat es-Sha’ab, a little-known and infrequently visited site just west of the Jordan river that is possibly one of the earliest places where Israelites assembled and worshiped as they settled in the land of Canaan. Being an outsider in this barren, desolate place reminds me that the biblical characters didn’t live in a world of civilian police, ambulance and 9-1-1 service. Nor did they have 2000 years of reflection on the whole Bible. The Old Testament characters need to be seen and heard in their own time, not dismissed from the perspective of our time.

With that in mind, here are seven facts to to help focus the question of violence in the Old Testament:

FACT ONE:

Jesus and the NT writers never complain about the violence in the Old Testament. That should flash at least a yellow, caution-light on our hasty dismissal of the Old Testament. Are WE more morally sensitive than Jesus and the New Testament writers? Did they see something in the Old Testament that we miss?

FACT TWO

Secular historians and the Bible itself tell us that the land of Canaan at the time of the Israelite settlement was not inhabited by a uniform, indigenous population. Canaan was a crossroads and a diverse culture of many different groups: You know, all the “-ites”-Canaanites, Amorites, Perizites, stalactites, stalagmites… If you’d asked a random inhabitant of Canaan “Whose land is this?” You’d have gotten different answers. It was a no-mans-land.

FACT THREE

Genesis 12-50 tells us the Israelites’ ancestors had actually lived in Canaan for centuries before their sojourn in Egypt. They were not outsiders trying to take a land from its original owners. In fact, the Pharaohs of Egypt would have seen no real difference between Canaanites and Israelites. They came from the same place, spoke the same language, had the same physical anthropology, i.e. they looked alike. So there is no parallel between the book of Joshua and, say, the European settlers in North America displacing the earlier inhabitants.

FACT FOUR

This a biggee. By Joshua’s day, Canaan had long suffered under a harsh political system. Canaan in the time of Moses and Joshua had been ruled for centuries by Egypt. Egypt had been ruled by foreign kings known as the Hyksos, who possibly came from Syria-Palestine. A native Egyptian dynasty expelled these foreign kings, pursuing them into Canaan. To insure they never came back, Egypt annexed Canaan and ruled it with two aims: first, never-ever would Canaan be a corridor for anyone attacking Egypt!

Second, Pharaoh exploited Canaan economically. He administered Canaan by appointing rulers in the top 30 or so towns. They managed the country like a giant agricultural plantation, a kind of “factory farm.” They focused on producing a small number of crops valued by the Egyptian upper classes, mainly olives and a type of grape that thrived only in Canaan.

This reality had serious consequences.

The focus on massive production of a few crops not only risked depleting the land, it also destroyed the locally integrated, self-sustaining economies of small villages and towns throughout the hill country. These  communities needed mix of farming and herding just to survive. The Egyptians also yanked the best of the work force out of these towns and villages to toil as forced labor, emptying the rural hill country of Canaan. Many people from Canaan, not just future Israelites, wound up slaves in Egypt. Settlement patterns in Canaan about 1300 B.C., just before the exodus and conquest, show the central hill country of Canaan was largely emptied out.

Under this kind of regime, Canaan was unstable and violent. The city rulers fought each other, hired mercenaries, sometimes cruelly treated the local populace. Bandits terrorized the highways. Men stripped of their land and living gathered around warlords, some of whom were good men, others just thugs or gangsters.

So, by the time Joshua led the Israelites into Canaan, the place was dark and bloody ground. It’s just possible that, far from being seen as invaders, Joshua and the Israelites represented the arrival of order, justice, and even peace.

FACT FIVE

The Old Testament shows us that, even in the conquest stories, the Israelites were not a militarized nation. While other nations boasted of their weapons and crack troops, the Israelites were not a professional army.  Likewise, the Israelites were not a huge group. The idea found in some textbooks that there were at least 2.5 million Israelites comes from a  misunderstanding of the Hebrew terminology for numbers. Archaeologists tell us that likely weren’t 2.5 million people living in all of Canaan and Syria combined!

The books of Deuteronomy, Joshua & Judges stress that, from a military perspective, the Israelites were out-numbered, out-maneuvered and out-gunned. After Joshua, they had no central authority. They were only a coalition of tribes, often divided, often untrue to their own religion. The Bible says they needed miraculous divine intervention just to survive. Hardly the profile of a nation of bloodthirsty, imperialists!

FACT SIX

Warlike nations, and all of Israel’s ancient neighbors, gloried in their superior weapons and firepower. Images of Pharaoh portray him holding his hapless enemies by the hair and smiting them with a mace or battle axe. Or, we see Pharaoh thundering along in his war chariot, horses’ reins tied around his waist, unleashing arrows at cringing, fleeing foes. The Old Testament, in contrast,  stresses that the Israelites were poorly armed, confronting fortified cities or huge chariot forces on foot. The Old Testament also emphasizes Israel’s lack of metal workers. Again, not exactly a warrior nation.

FACT SEVEN

Finally, the world of Moses, Joshua, Gideon and David was a world of unspeakable violence perpetrated by massive, well-armed professional armies. The kings of Egypt, Asia Minor and Mesopotamia gloried in their brutality and savagery. In countless inscriptions throughout the history of the ancient Near East, the great kings boasted of  boring through their enemies’ bodies, ripping their entrails out, galloping their horses and chariots through the gore of enemy bodies, splashing through enemy blood as if crossing a river, impaling thousands of “rebels” on stakes around conquered cities, flaying the skin off of their defeated enemies in full view of their families, and hideously mutilating the dead. And you know, almost nobody in the ancient Near East found this shocking. Rather, most thought it glorious proof that the gods had favored the king. Compared to the graphic detail, intensity, and sheer mass of these ancient descriptions, the Old Testament looks rather tame, even modest.

Whatever problems we might have with the violence in the Old Testament, it was One who claimed to be the fulfillment of the entire Old Testament, Jesus, whose Hebrew name was Joshua, who appealed constantly to the OT witness. Schooled in the Old Testament, Jesus called his people to love their enemies and to be peacemakers, not in spite of his Old Testament heritage, but because of it.

That’s something to think about.

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I’m 60 years old, professor of Old Testament at Asbury Theological Seminary in Wilmore, Kentucky. I love my wife of 36 years, my three adult children and children-in-law. I love our three horses, two cats, and whatever other creatures decide to call our place home. I hate mowing grass, hanging pictures or shelves, or anything involving punching or drilling holes in walls. I love my job of studying and teaching the Old Testament. I’ve recently contracted a fierce interest in archaeology. I also enjoy guitars, jazz, vintage firearms, airplanes, photography, drystone masonry and, visiting the lands of the Bible.

16 COMMENTS

  1. This…doesn’t track.

    All of this would make absolute perfect sense were it not for one very inconvenient truth: God commands the Israelites to kill everyone. Not just the rulers; not just the warriors; not just the bandits; not just those who gloried in barbarity and savagery. /Everyone,/ down to the smallest, most innocent child. If the Israelites were really meant to be above all of those other nations; if they were really supposed to represent order and peace in contrast to the bloody status quo; then why were they commanded to completely annihilate entire peoples? Why were they commanded to destroy everything?

    Until you can explain to me why there was a good and moral reason to slaughter children, I’m not going to buy any of this.

    • I’m deeply troubled by that as well. But Dr Stone’s post is enlightening for me because, like he says, the OT characters need to be seen and heard in their own time, not dismissed from the perspective of our time.
      We have a different understanding of morality than they did. Also the idea of progressive revelation tells us we have a different understanding of God than they did. Therefore they acted based on their understanding of God which is different than ours. They didn’t have the filter of Jesus’ example through which to view things.
      God instructing them to kill babies is still disgusting, but maybe stepping into their understanding of God and the world will lessen the sting.

    • I almost hate to respond, because A) I don’t think I’ve ever read a satisfactory answer, and B) I don’t know that I can give an answer with theological depth. I’ve recently been considering this very question, and it is quite troublsome indeed. This article really does clear a lot up for me, but here’s a couple things I would add on the issue of violence:

      1. God was EXTREMELY patient with the rebellious nations. It was years and years and years before God went to the extremes he did, and he did not punish without ample notice ahead of time.
      2. In the Law, God made plenty of provision for the “sojourner” or “foreigner among you”. What does this imply? Anyone in the surrounding nations were welcome to repent of their sin and submit themselves to the presribed laws and customs of God, in faith, at any time they chose. They could be circumcised, offer sacrifices and offerings to Yahweh, and participate in the fesitvals. But, much like today, social and familial pressure, nationalism, devotion to their gods, etc., all kept them from being grafted in to that which was so foreign.

      As far as the children go, all I can think is that, had they continued to grow in their culture, they would have been raised to be just as bloodthristy and violent as their forefathers, thereby losing their innocence and inviting the wrath of God on themselves. Knowing this, God was a step ahead of them in foreknowing that they would never change, not in any possible universe, and therefore…killed them? Even as I type this, I’m not sure that I’M satisfied with the response, but it’s all I can think of at this time. Perhaps this is where we trust in providence and sovereignty and wisdom and goodness of God.
      Lastly, I think about God’s decree in Exodus, the plague, to kill the firstborn among man and beast in all the land of Egypt. Long calculations, census information, and other statistics short, there were probably less than 72,000 Egyptian children killed in the plague; this is opposed to the the Pharaoh’s decree to kill all male Hebrew babies, which decree was in place for about 80 years, in which time almost 3 million babies were killed (partial-birth abortions, being tossed in the Nile, etc.). God’s plague was not out of place historically-contextually.
      All that to say: I don’t really know why God did and said the things he did. I don’t trust him any less, but I certainly don’t fully grasp his reasoning either.

    • I hope you realize these are 7 preliminary considerations that provide a framework for approaching the more specific questions. So, for example, that Jesus never singles out the “herem” traditions for criticism, never warns his followers off from the book of Joshua, suggests that ultimately, for Christ-followers, the approach somehow must be one that gets us to Jesus’ evident acceptance of Joshua. Also, if all these 7 facts are true, and they are, then perhaps we need to re-visit just how we interpret the commands for annihilation. In the second video in the series, I take up the book of Joshua and the specific issues related to “holy war.” I don’t presume to have it all figured out, but I do think there are a good many factors that we have to weigh. The popular, clichéd dismissal of the Old Testament as favoring genocide really is irresponsible and uninformed both by the text and by solid exegesis.

    • Frimp,
      As I have recently thought about this topic the most simple conclusion that I have come to centers around the work of Christ. How seriously does God see my sin and how serious is He about redeeming me and this fallen world? Christ was innocent and was slaughtered by us. How is that “fair”? Yet, this somehow was to cover my and your guilt before God the Father Almighty.
      Violence was initiated into this world by our doing not God’s. Cain’s murder of his brother Abel was simply an extension of the parent’s rebellion before them. I seems like a trite thing that Adam and Eve did in the garden, but then we see its great effects. Our fall from innocence effects those that follow us. This includes our children who are not considered innocent any longer by God.
      So really their are no “innocent children” as we would like to think. We are all under the judgment of God and also under the Cross of His Son’s forgiveness.
      I do not think that there is another religion in the world that proclaims such a free forgiveness, or one that proclaims such a dire problem of what sin is and causes.

  2. He makes an invalid point by saying Jesus never condemned OT violence. Jesus never justified it, either. In fact, whenever Paul quoted the OT, he made sure to leave out the violent parts and even abridged passages to do so.

    • I don’t mean to sound contemptuous but your response to the article is illogical.

      You said “he makes an invalid point by saying Jesus never condemned OT violence.”
      Your reasoning- Jesus never justified OT violence. Stone did not purport Jesus as one who upheld violence (mentioned in the OT) as an ethical standard, he simply made the observation that Jesus did not feel the need to justify the actions of Israel as they settled the land of Canaan. To say Stone is incorrect in his assertion that Jesus never condemned violence in the OT b/c Jesus never supported violence in the OT is erroneous. The fact that Paul left out sections of violence from the OT cannot lead one to the conclusion that he was in some way embarrassed or appalled. What is the context for the passages you are citing? Is Paul omitting the violence out of shame or out of relevance to the topic being addressed?

  3. Nimrod (Gen. 10) was a powerful Kushite kingdom builder. The Old Testament does not describe how he established himself in the Tigris-Euphrates, but you can be sure it involved violence. He was a warrior-king.

  4. […] It does seem that many of these stories are meant to be taken literally. The Israelite conquest of Canaan was, in fact, a real, traceable series of events. Jesus tells us in Mathew 5 that we are to love our enemies as well as our neighbors. However, the depictions in the Old Testament of conquest and violence make this command seem almost hypocritical. There are several reasons why the violence committed by God and his people may have been exaggerated, for one thing, and also may have been justifiable. Professor Lawson Stone from Asbury Theological Seminary explains in this article, which I will provide in full. http://seedbed.com/feed/violence-in-the-old-testament-starting-points/ […]

  5. […] It does seem that many of these stories are meant to be taken literally. The Israelite conquest of Canaan was, in fact, a real, traceable series of events. Jesus tells us in Mathew 5 that we are to love our enemies as well as our neighbors. However, the depictions in the Old Testament of conquest and violence make this command seem almost hypocritical. There are several reasons why the violence committed by God and his people may have been exaggerated, for one thing, and also may have been justifiable. Professor Lawson Stone from Asbury Theological Seminary explains in this article, which I will provide in full. http://seedbed.com/feed/violence-in-the-old-testament-starting-points/ […]

  6. […] It does seem that many of these stories are meant to be taken literally. The Israelite conquest of Canaan was, in fact, a real, traceable series of events. Jesus tells us in Mathew 5 that we are to love our enemies as well as our neighbors. However, the depictions in the Old Testament of conquest and violence make this command seem almost hypocritical. There are several reasons why the violence committed by God and his people may have been exaggerated, for one thing, and also may have been justifiable. Professor Lawson Stone from Asbury Theological Seminary explains in this article, which I will provide in full. http://seedbed.com/feed/violence-in-the-old-testament-starting-points/ […]

  7. I am reading through the Old Testament (I’m through Judges) and while I am astonished at the level of violence that included entire peoples, and in some cases all of their livestock and their possessions put to the torch.

    I would say however, that the entire history of the ancient world and indeed the modern world is rife with violence and destruction. The idea that the Bible would be without testimony to this fact would be incomplete indeed.

    The role of God in this violence can seem to be very unclear. Obviously, God could have destroyed the cities, peoples and so on that were on the wrong side of his law without the Canaanites however it would seem to me that God who routinely dealt with reverses and backsliding by his “chosen people” chose to engage them as an instrument of his reckoning. I can only surmise that in this very violent world, he chose to have his people fight for the land that he promised them.

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