How Can We Reconcile Violence in the Bible?
Through Jesus we can discover our response to violence and oppression
Seldom a day goes by when we don’t hear of terrorists who commit violence and murder in the name of their faith. These religious zealots believe a higher calling gives them the right to kill others in order to elevate their beliefs.
This seems barbaric, ignorant, and misguided. We, as followers of Jesus, would never do that. But Christians have. In the name of religion they killed. And we only need look at the Old Testament for a precedence that seems to give permission.
Old Testament Violence
As the nation of Israel leaves Egypt and comes to reclaim the territory God gave them, he tells them to annihilate the inhabiting people, to utterly destroy them and their pagan practices. As I read these accounts in the Old Testament, I struggle with the violence I encounter. I don’t get it. It doesn’t seem justified, and it’s not fair.
Yet, I see four things that somewhat help me reconcile the violence we read about in the Old Testament.
It Was Specific: God does not give a universal command for his people to kill all their enemies, regardless of geography or situation. He directs this instruction only at the people living in the Promised Land, occupying the territory he gave his people. To apply this to any other circumstances is inappropriate and a misuse of scripture.
It Was For One Season: God’s command to wipe out the inhabiting peoples only applies to one period of time: as his people take back the territory he gave them. He never says this instruction to kill and destroy applies for all time or extends indefinitely into the future.
It Was an Anomaly: In a general command, one without limits, God tells his people to treat the foreigners living among them as one of them, as native born (Leviticus 19:34). This is far different than his one-time instruction to kill.
It Was Fulfilled: Even if we disregard that the command to kill was specific and for a limited time, remember that Jesus fulfills the Law and the Prophets of the Old Testament (Matthew 5:17). It is over, in the past. The old ways are gone.
Still, these seem to me as poor justifications for the Israelites to kill. Though I’m content to accept God as sovereign and freely admit that I can’t begin to understand him or his ways, I still struggle with the Old Testament’s slaughter of people. (By the way, it’s hard to convert people to your way of thinking when they’re dead.)God says we are to love our enemies, pray for them, and live in peace. Click To Tweet
New Testament Nonviolence
I am, however, comforted by the New Testament, which doesn’t perpetuate God’s people inflicting violence on others. I’m encouraged by what Jesus and his followers say to counter the Old Testament’s accounts of violence:
Pray For Those Who Persecute You: Right after Jesus commands us to love our enemies, he adds that we should pray for those who intend us harm (Matthew 5:44). By the way, this includes the terrorists who today kill people in the name of their religion.
I’ve never thought to do that until right now. It’s going to be hard. Will you join me?
Live in Peace: Paul writes to the followers of Jesus who live in Rome, instructing them to live at peace with everyone (Romans 12:18). In the book of Hebrews we read the same thing, along with the kicker to be holy as we do (Hebrews 12:14). Our holiness points others to God, allowing them to see him for who he is.
Though the violence in the Old Testament perplexes me, what applies to us today comes from the New Testament: Love our enemies, pray for those who intend us harm, and strive to live in peace with everyone.
That is how we are to respond to the violence around us today.
Peter DeHaan writes about biblical spirituality, often with a postmodern slant. He seeks a fresh approach to faith and following God through the lens of scripture, without the baggage of made-up traditions and meaningless practices. Read more in his books, blog, and weekly email updates.