3. Is God violent?
I can see this question going in a couple of different directions. First, people often ask about God’s instructions for the Israelites to go to war and kill people—sometimes even women and children—found in the Old Testament. Secondly, does God want his followers to use violent means, if necessary, to promote his cause in the present day? For example, is God in favor of using violence to deter people from getting an abortion? I’ll address violence in the Old Testament in this blog.
First let’s consider the question of violence in the Old Testament. There are a number of possible explanations for the violence found in the Old Testament, though admittedly I don’t know how a definitive answer can be made. To begin, it is interesting to look at God’s response to the first act of violence recorded in the Bible, when Cain murders his brother Able (Genesis 4:1-16). God seems upset and calls Cain to account. However God doesn’t kill Cain as a punishment, and in fact declares that he desires that no one else kill Cain either.
Later on though, God wipes out the majority of life on earth in a cataclysmic act of destruction: the flooding of the world. He states his reason as being that “every inclination of the thoughts of [people’s] hearts were only evil all the time.” (Genesis 6:5). So was this act of violence carried out in order to spare people from one another and the continued spread of evil? After the flood God commands capital punishment for murder (Genesis 9:5-6), perhaps as both a deterrent and means to keep violent people in check.
After this we have the destruction of Sodom and Gomorrah, whom God also declares to be completely evil. Then God kills all of the firstborn sons in Egypt. There isn’t much justification given for this apart from the struggle to get Pharaoh to allow the Israelites to leave Egypt. Later on, many violent punishments are prescribed in the Law, God commands war and killing, including at times women and children (Numbers 31, 1 Samuel 15), and on more than one occasion fatal plagues come upon the Israelites themselves as punishments for disobeying God.
So how are we to understand all this violence? First of all, we should consider that death, war and suffering were common and subsequently more accepted and less questioned than in our culture today. Also, the recipients of these violent acts weren’t innocent, but were often committing worse atrocities, even up to sacrificing infants (2 Kings 3:27, 16:3, 17:17, 31, 21:6, 2 Chronicles 28:3, 33:6). Additionally, many of the wars that Israel participated in were more defensive than aggressive. It has also been argued that the punishments found in the Law actually limited the amount of vengeance one could take, as compared to what was common at the time. To sum up, it was a more savage time, and therefore the violence in the Old Testament was not out of place, but may have actually been a step in a better direction. God may have allowed an amount of violence as inevitable at the time.