Hey Pastor Park! I want to thank-you for the grace you show in your answers. I really appreciate your example of presenting your views in a gentle and humble manner. I also have a question: I struggle with reconciling God as he is depicted in the Old Testament with how he is depicted in the New Testament. Did He really order the deaths of men, women and children belonging to nations that opposed Israel? I know He is ultimately just, but I keep getting hung up on this.
Hey dear friend, I appreciate your very kind words.
This is a really tough question that had disturbed me when I was an atheist and disturbs me even more as a Christian. It will always be a point of tension that might not be entirely resolved until our time on earth is done. I’d like to graciously present several different views about the wars in the Old Testament, from most brutal to most reasonable, and then let you decide. I’ll tell you what I personally believe in the end.
Please note: I’m not soft about the Bible. It does say a few hard things that I’m going to question all the way to Heaven. Jesus said hard things too. I don’t want to accommodate Scripture to fit a westernized, watered down, sugar-coated, therapeutic pick-me-up. But I also don’t want to capitulate to my own easternized, patriarchal, wrathful, vengeful picture of God. I believe the Bible has way more nuance than that. I know we won’t all see eye to eye on this either, and that’s totally OK. I truly welcome disagreement and I want to know where I’m wrong.
So here are some views to consider.
View 1—God really did order the wholesale slaughter of entire nations.
This is the most popular view with both hardcore Christians and hardcore atheists. It gives certain Christians a bloodthirsty, fear-mongering view of God to control others, while it gives more ammo to those who hate the Bible.
This view appears to be the most correct one when you first read the Old Testament. It seems no women, child or livestock is spared whenever Israel goes to war. It also seems God “relished” these genocides as some kind of pleasing gesture. So I can definitely see why the OT looks problematic at first glance.
View 2—God had to pick the better of two options.
In these ancient times, life was cheap. It was kill or be killed. Israel, the chosen people of God, was always the weakest and smallest nation. If they didn’t defend themselves or make a preemptive strike against pagan nations, they would’ve been wiped out over and over. As much as it would break God’s heart, He had a moral dilemma: Either He could let Israel die out from unrepentant idolaters, or He could train Israel to defend themselves and to fight. God would of course grieve over both options, but He picked the better of the two.
This view of “defending your country” bothers us because most of us don’t live under the constant threat of invasion. We’re intoxicated by the surburban quiet of privilege. Ancient society was often at the brink of this moral dilemma: to conquer or to be conquered. If we could pluck ourselves out of a Western view of safety, we might come to understand the barbarism of ancient times.
View 3—God might not have ordered these wars, but the passages are showing disobedient men who initiate their own campaigns, which are followed by chaos and consequences.
Many times in the Bible, especially the Old Testament, we’re shown what not to do. Since the OT was an orally transferred text, the original listeners would’ve heard these texts with a tone. They would’ve been able to hear which parts were of God and which were not.
For example, the Book of Nahum is basically one big middle finger to the Ninevites. But there is zero reason to believe that God is endorsing hatred against Nineveh—in fact, God sends Jonah to rescue the nation of Nineveh by preaching the truth. So Nahum is a book of racist anger. It’s showing what happens when man gets carried away with his hatred. I’m almost certain that portions of the OT were read tongue-in-cheek with sarcasm. You only need to witness a reading of the Book of Esther at a Purim Festival to get what I mean; there’s a lot of cheering, booing, dramatics and emotional layers in the Hebrew oral culture.
At times, when it seems God has “ordered” a war, I wonder if some (or all) of these wars were outside the jurisdiction of God’s commands. Maybe the men were saying it was “from God,” just like Nahum seemed like his ranting was “from God.” Perhaps the easiest way to tell is: What happens next? Interestingly enough, whenever there is polygamy, slavery or genocide in the Bible, it always ends in disaster. The Bible comments on these things, but never, ever condones them. [For more on that, click here, here, or here.]