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4 reasons God commands violence in the Old Testament

Apr 13, 2015

If you know anything about the TV show Parks & Rec, you know that Ron Swanson loves bacon. In a brief clip, he attempts to order all the bacon and eggs at a diner. Concerned the server will misunderstand him, he says “Wait, I’m worried what you just heard was, ‘Give me a lot of bacon and eggs.’ What I said was, ‘give me all the bacon and eggs you have.’ Do you understand?”

Ron Swanson’s concern that his order would be misunderstood reminds me of a similar concern I have about evangelical approaches to Israel’s conquest of Canaan. There’s a danger that we reinterpret God’s call to Israel to “completely destroy” the Canaanites in Deuteronomy 13 and 20 as hyperbole for simply defeating their enemies.

In his order at the diner, Ron Swanson wanted to be clear that he demanded all the bacon and eggs. In his call for Israel to war against the Canaanites, God wanted to be clear that he demanded the life of all of them. If anyone had a heartbeat, whether soldier or man or woman or child or livestock, it had to be stopped.

Why is it that evangelicals often seem to misunderstand God’s command to “show no mercy” to the Canaanites as simply an instruction to “kill a lot of bad guys?” Could it be that the reason we often sanitize the violence of the Old Testament is because we don’t understand why it is necessary to the biblical storyline?

When we understand the four reasons God commands violence in the Old Testament, it frees us to rightly understand Israel’s conquest of Canaan.

1. The violence of the Old Testament preserves the messianic bloodline. The seed of the woman; the offspring of Abraham; the prophet like Moses; the greater Joshua; the son of David: in all these ways, God promises to maintain a lineage that would bring forth a messiah. The violent scenes of the Old Testament show us the way that God preserves the promise of messianic deliverance that drives the Old Testament.

In other words, if the enemies of God ultimately defeat the people of God, then the promise of God will fail. If God doesn’t protect his people from their enemies, then the line of Jesus is cut off, and there is no salvation. If not for the violence of the Old Testament, then, you and I are headed toward hell right now.

2. The violence of the Old Testament purifies the people of God. A primary reason that God calls his people to defeat his enemies is so that the surrounding nations do not lead Israel astray through idolatry and sin. God knows that his people will join others in sin if they do not beat them first.

This call to purity is precisely why we see a pattern emerge in the violence of the Old Testament. While God fights for his people in their faithful obedience, he fights against his unfaithful people in their sinful rebellion. Victory for the pure; defeat for the impure. Exodus for the faithful; exile for the unfaithful. It’s not until the perfect life of Christ that a new Israel comes as the only faithful One of God and achieves the ultimate crown of victory.

3. The violence of the Old Testament prophesies the judgment of God. As God’s people conquer God’s enemies in victory, it declares to the surrounding nations that Yahweh is the rightful ruler of the universe. And when God’s enemies conquer God’s people in defeat, it declares to Israel that rebellion, even by God’s people, is worthy of judgment.

The violence of the Old Testament signals a real-time foretaste of an end times reality for everyone: those who reject the King will receive his wrath. The Old Testament enemies of God received the military judgment of God in conquest. All those who are outside of Christ will receive the spiritual judgment of God in hell.

4. The violence of the Old Testament patterns the atonement of Christ. In the cross and resurrection, we see the convergence of the Old Testament’s holy war pattern. Jesus is the conquering messiah who God fights for in victory because of his faithful obedience. But Jesus is also the substitutionary wrath-bearer who God fights against in judgment because he takes on our sinful rebellion.

At salvation, we are united to Christ so that he grants us the victory we don’t deserve and bears the penalty we owe. Covered by the righteousness of his shed blood, God sees Christians as his faithful people who he enables to find lasting victory in spiritual warfare by the power of the Spirit.

Ron Swanson had a reason to be concerned the server at the diner would misunderstand his order for all the bacon and eggs: it seems unnecessary and even outrageous that anyone would demand that much food. There’s the same risk that we will misunderstand the violence of the Old Testament: it seems unnecessary and even outrageous that God would demand that much conquest.

But if we understand the violence of the Old Testament in light of the unfolding kingdom central to the biblical narrative, it will allow us to recognize how this bloodshed preserves God’s messiah, purifies God’s people, prophesies God’s judgment and patterns Christ’s atonement—providing us with the hope we all desperately long for.

Phillip Bethancourt

Phillip Bethancourt is Executive Vice President of the ERLC. He leads the ERLC team to develop innovative strategies to equip churches to address the key moral and ethical issues of the day. He completed an MDiv and PhD in Systematic Theology at Southern... Read More