The Old Testament recorded many battles, killings, and conquests. It presents a challenge for many people to imagine God being involved in all this and even appearing to endorse it. One of the most frequent critiques of the Old Testament is the angry God who sanctions and even instigates religious warfare. Christians should not run away from or try to hide from such questions. Instead, we should listen and seek to know what Scripture says about God and his wrath in Scripture to make a defense for the truth (1 Peter 3:15). The Bible does not run from its skeptics; it boldly presents the good side of things but also records the challenging or complicated side of things. This balance is actually what makes the Bible even more trustworthy and credible.
War in Ancient Israel
Israel grew and developed as a culture and nation in the context of empires whose strategies for domination certainly included warfare. Hence, the Old Testament literature engages the full spectrum of war-related attitudes and experiences. The annihilation of peoples, the destruction of their “seed,” was a mark of national success in the ancient world. Hence, it is essential to remember that war and bragging about victory were common modes of domination in the Ancient Near East. The book of Judges indicates that tribes would unite in mutual interest to fight over highly contested land. Such tribal military coalitions continued through the rise of the Israelite kingdom. For example, Saul is depicted as a great unifier of vulnerable tribes against the Philistines, by far the largest local power of his day (1 Samuel 9:15-17). Saul called each clan/tribe interested in land protection, and his charismatic leadership earned him the people’s trust as their first king (1 Samuel 10:1).
A large portion of the books of the Old Testament can be connected to this history of warfare. For example, the Book of Lamentations contains poetry written in response to the Babylonian military invasion and destruction of Jerusalem. Nahum celebrates the destruction of Assyria’s capital, Nineveh. Genesis 14 tells of Abraham’s military activity and command of 318 men trained for war. The book of Ruth relates the exceptional story of a “good” Moabite, one from a kingdom that otherwise appears in ethnic and military conflicts with Israel at various points. Jeremiah was imprisoned for high treason as a political protester for his preaching on the Babylonian invasion of Jerusalem. The book of Exodus is about a divine war with Egypt and life for Hebrew slaves as refugees. The book of Judges repeatedly describes how God raised up military heroes to fight on behalf of the Israelite tribes. Deuteronomy includes instructions on how to engage in warfare. Isaiah was involved in the royal decisions about military activity. The list goes on, but the point is clear that ancient Israel and Old Testament times generally were set in times of warfare, not diplomacy.
The Character of God
I have seen many people compare Christ’s teaching on dealing with enemies (Matthew 5:43-44) with God’s dealing in the Old Testament (Exodus 17:14-16). While the Old Testament is where we see lots of violence, it also recorded much of God’s dealing with people in love and mercy. Psalm 103:8 describes God as merciful, slow to anger, and great in mercy. Abraham pleaded with God on behalf of Sodom and Gomorrah, and God was ready to forgive the people if only ten faithful individuals were found (Genesis 18:26-30). God’s grace operated even in the Old Testament. The prophets knew that God would relent in unleashing his anger if the people repented (Jonah 4:2). It is easier to overemphasize God’s wrath and ignore his character of mercy, which is very evident in the Old Testament.
The killing of the Canaanites, for example, goes way back to Noah’s time, as he cursed Canaan for exposing and making light of his nakedness (Genesis 9:24-26). When the Israelites occupied Canaan, God gave the Canaanites many years to repent of their sins, which were many, but judgment had to come upon them after four hundred years of grace (Genesis 15:13-16). Some of the sins that the Canaanites did are found in Leviticus 18:
- Extreme sexual acts (Leviticus 18:1-20)
- Demonic worship of idols (Leviticus 18:21, Deuteronomy 7:1-6)
- Killing their children as a sacrifice to the false God, Molech (Leviticus 18:21)
God did not have the Canaanites removed from the land of Israel because he preferred the Israelites more. It was that the Canaanites were so evil that it was demanded that justice be served after 400 years of rebellion (Deutermony 9:3-5, Leviticus 18:24-25). The Israelites themselves were warned that if they were sinning as the Canaanites, they would be “vomited out of the land” (Leviticus 18:26-30). God, therefore, was merciful to the Canaanites, giving them four hundred years to repent. It would be hard to say that God was not just to them by giving them four hundred years to repent.
Killing as God’s Justice
In the Old Testament, God exercised justice for sins by surrendering the sinful nation to a more righteous nation. His standard for his people was so high that he once used the most wicked nation of Baylon to punish his people of the tribe of Judah (Habakkuk 1:12-17). God’s form of justice was impartial. All, excluding none, suffered the wrath of God due to their sins. For instance, in Judges, God always punished his people, and when they repented of their evils, God raised a judge to free them from the bondage of their enemies. The worst-case scenario of God’s judgment was destroying the world with a flood in the days of Noah (Genesis 7:1-23). These should send shivers through our spines, imagining what will happen upon the return of Christ, when he will cast the wicked into the lake of fire (Revelation 21:8).
There was salvation for those who converted and believed in the Israelite God. For example, Rahab saved the spies and believed in the Jewish God for salvation (Joshua 2:8-16). God also honored Joshua’s covenant with the Gibeonites, though it was against his intention as they were supposed to be killed (Joshua 9:18-20). The taking over of Canaan was also gradual as the people increased (Exodus 23:29). All the above indicates God’s mercy in dealing with the people, but there was also justice.
Many have denied God on the premise of his seemingly harsh Old Testament dealings with evil-doers. Unfortunately, no argument will hold water on the day of judgment once we deny Christ. How shall we escape if we ignore such a great salvation as this (Hebrew 2:3)? Is Jesus not the only way to heaven (John 14:6, Acts 4:12)? Just because we don’t see the entire picture of God’s operation in the Old Testament should not justify missing an eternity with God. Jesus is coming again, and no good deed shall bring you salvation; only believing in his death and resurrection is what saves (Acts 4:12; Romans 5:12).