WHY IS GOD SO MORBIDLY VIOLENT IN THE OLD TESTAMENT ?
How can a loving God call for so much killing and violence? It can seem like there’s a divide between the violent “God of the Old Testament” and the loving “God of the New Testament.” But God is the same yesterday, today, and tomorrow. So what’s the deal with the blood and gore we read about in Scripture?
The God who made a covenant with Abraham to bless all nations (Gen. 22:15-18) in the Old Testament is the same God who fulfills that covenant in the New Testament through His divine Son, Jesus Christ. (Gal. 3:16). This same Christ died for all sins past and future, including the sin of Adam and Eve (Rom. 5:6-21), as promised by His eternal Father in the Old Testament.
People sometimes characterize God’s actions as “vengeful,” because of such actions as the flood (Gen.6-17) and the allowance of warfare against Israel’s enemies, including the annihilation of enemy women and children (Dt. 20:16-18). However, a close reading of the Old Testament reveals that God does not directly intend evil, but does permit it, because authentic love necessarily implies freedom. Since human freedom went awry, sin, suffering, and death entered the world.
If man cannot directly choose evil, how much more so for almighty God? In this regard, Deuteronomy 20 appears to provide the biggest challenge to the dogma of God’s sinlessness. In attempting to resolve this biblical dilemma, we need to recognize that there is a big difference between a person’s directly intending or choosing evil vs. a lawgiver’s tolerating an evil or less-than-perfect situation, in order that greater evils might not result.
For example, the Church opposes fornication, but offers the confessional, not state-sanctioned criminal penalties, as a more efficacious remedy to regulate and minimize this societal ill. Trying to enforce such a criminal code might lead to worse societal upheaval. In that light we can understand the nature of the Deuteronomic Law and why it was given. Because of their worship of the Golden Calf following the Exodus, many Israelites were killed (Ex. 32-33).
God’s plan was to teach and save the world through Israel, ultimately with the coming of His Son, and this would not occur if the hard-hearted Israelites attempted to cohabitate with these wicked pagans. We should also know that God would not arbitrarily abandon the Canaanites or other groups who would face such execution. We can have confidence that God would provide the merciful opportunity for their repentance at death, so that they could be with Him in heaven once Jesus opened the Gates. God’s love shines through the Old Testament in His covenant promise to bless all nations through Israel and in assuring the Israelites that His steadfast love endures forever (Ps. 136).
With Christ’s coming, grace was given to fulfill God’s perfect law. There is now no excuse for us. God’s justice and mercy continues but, following the example of our Savior, we are more much likely to give witness by laying down our lives in sharing the Catholic faith than by executing judgment on a sinful people like the ancient Israelites. In both cases, God’s justice and mercy are operative, the differences stemming from our living in a superior, grace-filled time of salvation history.
Finally, in looking at the New Testament, one might argue that God is harsh and vengeful, because Jesus speaks about the hard road to salvation (Mt. 7:13-14) and, much more significant than loss of temporal life via killing, says that some people will not gain eternal life in heaven (Mt. 25:31-46). Yet, because we know that God desires that all men be saved (2 Pet. 3:9), we can only conclude that the ultimate punishment, life everlasting in hell, is the just punishment for those who choose to definitively exclude themselves from God (Rom. 2:6-11).