Making Sense of Old Testament Violence

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Hi, friends. For today’s sermon question, I want to spend a little bit more time thinking about the subject, the very uncomfortable, at times subject of violence in the Old Testament. We brought up this subject this last Sunday in my message from the book of Esther, chapter nine and chapter ten, where we see, yes, this wonderful story of God’s redemption and salvation and protection and defense of his people. But we also, in Esther nine, read some shocking things about elements of violence in the story that we have to kind of come to grips with. And we talked about how there are some actual explanations that are fairly reasonable explanations behind what we see in Esther nine.

But there are other places in scripture that can be very problematic. And there are lots of people who have lots of questions about the violence that we read in scripture, for instance, in the book of Joshua, that can cause a lot of difficulty, because how do we square that violence, like in the story of Esther or in the story of Joshua and the taking over of the promised land? How do we square that with the God of love and of compassion and mercy? What are we supposed to do with that? And so what we see in the book of Joshua, and I just want to spend a moment there to kind of further illustrate the complexities of this challenge and this topic.

And what we see in the book of Joshua, if you just sort of read it, is God raises up Joshua and empowers him and commissions him to lead the Israelites into the promised land and to take the inhabitants of that land, the Canaanites, and to completely wipe the mouth. And we’re left just sort of looking at that going, well, what are, again, we supposed to make of this? Well, one of the first places we need to start, and again, we talked about this in my message on Sunday, is we have to admit that it’s difficult for us in the 21st century and in western civilization here, where we find ourselves to be able to look back at the stories of the ancient near east hundreds and thousands of years ago and to be able to fully understand the complexities of all that.

We also need to admit that when we pull out stories in isolation out of their context, that can be really problematic for us because we come away with a certain reading, as opposed to looking at certain individual stories within the larger interconnected story, that the whole Old Testament is from Genesis all the way through, that what these stories are, are part of a larger story of God doing something really, really unique. So let’s take the book of Joshua, for instance, and talk about what are we to do with all of that kind of violence there, because if you just read it in isolation, Joshua coming in and being commissioned by God to wipe out the Canaanites, it appears that by first reading that God is simply pro ancient israelite and that he is simply anti canaanite.

Yet you read a little bit further, again in the larger context, a more complex picture begins to emerge. For instance, what are we supposed to do with Rahab? She was a canaanite woman who proved her allegiance to God, the God of Israel. And God not only rescued Rahab, this canaanite woman, her family, because of her allegiance to Yahweh, but she not only rescues them, but she also is incorporated into the larger genealogy of Jesus. She’s part of the lineage that eventually leads to Jesus and his family line.

And so there’s an instance of, again, not simply being anti canaanite, there’s some complexity there. And that God has times when he does something different that we don’t fully expect. Or take the story in Joshua, chapter seven of an israelite man named Achan who betrayed God and sinned against God. And you could read about that story in Joshua seven about this israelite man. But God then commissions the Canaanites of all people to display his judgment and to reveal Achan’s sin, and therefore Israel’s sin.

And so as we look at that again in isolation, we may not see that, but it’s part of the larger storyline. Something more complex is being shown to us about the God who is doing all sorts of things that we can’t fully comprehend by just simply looking at an individual story and divorcing it from the larger interconnected story. And not only that, within Joshua, we also have multiple stories of God taking canaanite family groups. And then later on in the Old Testament, we see them popping up and being integrated into the community of Israel, of all people, especially during the story of David.

So again, God is up to something here.

What we need to understand is we need to read these things within the larger, interconnected story. And what we know is that each of these interconnected stories in the Old Testament are eventually meant to point us forward to Jesus. And thank goodness for that, because what we see in Jesus is a person who entered into the world and took the evil of humanity’s history of violence into himself. And instead of punishing his enemies and trying to take them out, he loved his enemies. And he said, you were to love them and you were to pray for your enemies.

And Jesus even gave his life for his enemies. And so the way that we see these Old Testament stories about violence is they are pointing us towards something much, much better, which for us as followers of Jesus means looking at Jesus as our guide for our ethics and for how we are to deal with our enemies. So again, we need to understand that, yes, these stories do exist in scripture, and we, none of us can fully comprehend all of the mysteries of God. We don’t want to minimize the questions that might arise, but we need to understand that the biblical authors don’t always try to tie a neat little bow around all of our questions.

And to paraphrase Tim Keller, just because you and I cannot see a reason why God might do something like allow violence to take place in these stories doesn’t mean that God didn’t have a good reason for it.

Just because we don’t fully understand the mind of God doesn’t mean that God doesn’t have his ways. And there’s a measure of trust, ultimately that’s there as well. Well, I’m processing this question, and I know that you probably are as well. There’s so much more that we could say than just in this short little video. But thank you for sending in this question and for being curious about this along with me as we seek to better understand the God who saves, the God who redeems, and the God who uses all sorts of means to accomplish his will.

Thanks for joining us today.