Tough Questions: Violence in the Old Testament

This is the first question/answer post in our Tough Questions series. A few months ago, we preached through the book of Judges at Blueprint.  If you’ve ever read through the book you know that there are some tough things to grapple with.  In my opinion, there’s nothing more difficult to wrestle with than reconciling God’s goodness with His apparent command of mass genocide of entire nations.  How could a loving God do something like this?  How could He not only kill innocent people that haven’t done anything wrong, but also enlist other people (namely the Israelities) to be accomplices in this act?  Is it a contradiction for Him to command His people not to murder but then order them to kill people?  How could God’s people be holy while they carry out a decree like this?

See what I mean?  Lots of questions (difficult questions) come to mind and most of those questions appear from reading the first two pages.  My goal isn’t to answer all of these questions exhaustively (because it would take more than an 1000 word blog post to do that).  My goal, however, is to help you understand a few truths that should help you connect the dots (or at least move some roadblocks that exist) between God’s goodness and His command for His people at this specific juncture.  By asking and answering three questions I hope to get to the underlying assumptions that keep us from reconciling these two truths.

Who has the right to decide to end a human life?

I think that before we begin making judgments on what’s good or evil, the first question that we have to ask is who has the right to end a human life?  We immediately look to ourselves and other humans and recognize that we don’t have that right.  That’s why murder is something that is so appalling.  We look at murderers as people who “stole” someone else’s right to live.  Many times you’ll hear people say things like, “you had no right to take his life.”

Which leads me to my point: if we as humans don’t have the right to determine who lives and who dies, then who does?  Really, the only person with the right to determine who lives is the Author of Life Himself.  Hebrews 1:3 says that God sustains all things by His powerful word.  Psalms 104:10-14 talks about how God nurtures the earth and provides the rain and water that brings the vegetation in the earth.  So we see that God both directly (by sustaining our every breath) and indirectly (by providing the earth with everything we need to survive) keeps each and every one of alive daily.  If He were to stop producing oxygen for an hour, the whole world would die.  God doesn’t just wind the clock and let all of us carry on in our life, He actively gives us every breath, He is actively engaged in every heartbeat.  God decides second to second, minute to minute, and hour to hour who lives and who dies.

In a nutshell, God Himself has the right to determine who lives and who dies because He is both the creator and sustainer of life.  If you’re discontent with this, then the question becomes, if God doesn’t have that right... then who should?

Who sets the standard for what is worthy of life and death?

Since God created and sustains our life, then He is the one who determines the standard by which life and death are “earned”.  This is something that you and I praise and are grateful for in every judge.  It’s a concept of justice.  Someone who has power and authority and uses this authority to uphold a standard of good.

God’s command to Israel to wipe out a nation wasn’t something that God determined would be done by His “favorite” nation to a nation that He liked less.  In Deuteronomy 9:4-6 God tells Israel that He is going to drive out the nation because of their unrighteousness (not because of Israel’s righteousness).  God is not practicing favoritism.  God is not a colonialist that is wiping out the Native Americans so that “His people” can possess the best land.  God is a just judge who is (in His infinite wisdom) using sinful people to judge a nation that’s rebelled against Him.

Before we start to cry out that this is unfair, and that the Israelities have it good, let’s remember that God (because He is just) does the exact same thing to the Israelities as they progress in their unrighteousness.  In the book of Judges, time and time again God turns them over to another wicked nation because of their sinfulness.  The book of Habbakuk is a conversation between God and an Israelite.  The Israelite begins the book and is appalled that God is using a wicked nation to enact justice on the Israelites, but by the end He begins to understand that God is just and has the right to govern His creation how He chooses.

Does God have an obligation to keep us alive?

If anything both of these truths should cause us to reflect on the fact that because of our sin, we have earned death (Romans 3:23, 6:23).  God has no obligation to keep any of us alive.  Every breath that we take is a gift from God, and we shouldn’t assume that just because God’s justice doesn’t take place immediately that it’s not deserved (Romans 2:4; 2 Peter 3:8-10).  God’s continuous patience with us is meant to lead us to repentance.  Every breath that we take is a gift of grace.  If he were to judge us for our sin we all would have been gone a long time ago.

On that day when God decides that our life will end (regardless of the means that our death comes about), one thing that we’ll all be forced to remember is that God was extremely gracious for all of the days that He granted us.  Understanding this truth should give us a new perspective on how we spend our days (especially how we acknowledge God each morning).

A brief word to the two types of people who may be reading this blog:

Like I said before, you’ll be hard pressed to find a comprehensive answer on this blog or any blog.  For the person that is doubting and a skeptic this may not be sufficient proof because the underlying assumption that we haven’t dealt with is “is God good?”.  If you come to the table with the assumption that God is wicked, then there are much more extensive works that could help you reconcile some of the apparent paradoxes that you find.  My encouragement, however, would be to start reading the Bible and look at the patience with which God deals with His people.  Look at the gross ways they sin against Him and how much self-control He has.  Ask yourself, if you had no limits on your power and there was no one to judge you or restrain you from retaliation, how would you exercise that power towards people that offended you?  Compare your response to God’s and let me know who is more gracious, more patient.

For the person who begins with a devotion to God and has the underlying assumption that God is good and just has trouble connecting the dots, I hope this helped.  This is a good starting point, but it may not answer all of your questions either.  My hope and prayer that this will help to ease a little of the tension and cringing that comes as you read and try to explain these portions of Scripture.