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Understanding God’s Call for Violence in the Old Testament

Only in the cities of these peoples that the Lord your God is giving you as an inheritance, you shall not leave alive anything that breathes.  But you shall utterly destroy them, the Hittite, the Amorite, the Canaanite, the Perizzite, the Hivite, and the Jebusite, just as the Lord your God has commanded you -Deuteronomy 20:16-17

Is God different in each Testament?

One of the things that have caused people to question God is His call for violence in the Old Testament. People find it hard to understand how “the God of the Old Testament” can be the same “God of the New Testament”. To those who haven’t read the Bible as a whole, the two Testaments reflect a disparity in the nature of God. So the general belief is that God was violent and harsh in the Old Testament and tender in the New Testament.

The issue with this belief is the fact that it’s wrong. God didn’t suddenly change in the New Testament. He’s the same God in both Testaments. So the question remains, “if the God of the New Testament, the God of love is the same as the God in the Old Testament, why did He command the Israelites to commit so many violent acts in the Old Testament?”

Understanding God’s nature

To understand God’s call for violence in the Old Testament, you have to understand the nature of God.

One of the things that The Bible makes very clear is the fact that God is Holy. It’s repeated several times in the Bible and in the praises sung to Him.

And one called out to another and said, “Holy, Holy, Holy, is the Lord of hosts. The whole earth is full of His glory.

Isaiah 6:3

To be holy means to be set apart, blameless, and without blemish. This means that the smallest of sin cannot come near God, which is made evident in Habakuk 1:13. This is why when the Israelites were moving into the promised land, God asked them to eradicate everyone that was in the land they were taking over. The Bible says that God had made the Israelites His people, those who would carry His name and herald His glory for the whole world to see, Deuteronomy 14:2; Exodus 19:5-6. Therefore they had to be distinct from those who surrounded them Leviticus 18:2-4. And had desired to make them His habitation Psalm 132:6. Except, God can’t dwell in sin because He is Holy. In order for God to dwell among the Israelites, they had to be Holy.

Thus you are to be holy to Me, for I the Lord am holy; and I have set you apart from the peoples to be Mine.

Leviticus 20:26

Why did God call for such violence?

God called for the violence because He is omniscient. God sees all and knows all. This means He knew that if the Israelites didn’t kill the people in those lands, the Israelites would become just like them.

But you shall utterly destroy them, the Hittite, the Amorite, the Canaanite, the Perizzite, the Hivite and the Jebusite, just as the Lord your God has commanded you, so that they will not teach you to act in accordance with all the detestable practices which they have done [in worship and service] for their gods, and in this way cause you to sin against the Lord your God.

Deuteronomy 20:17-18

Unfortunately, this is exactly what happened. The people that the Israelites spared caused Israel to sin and caused Israel to become wicked. The Israelites began to engage and follow their pagan practices, which involved burning their children as sacrifices, practicing divination, selling themselves to evildoing, worshipping idols, oppressing the poor and the weak and so much more, as the pagans did (2 Kings 17:17; Jeremiah 32:35).

It’s important that you understand that nothing God does is in vain. God also doesn’t take pleasure in the killings of the wicked (Ezekiel 33:11); instead, God wants their salvation. However, it’s important that we remember that God knew the hearts of every single person that he ordered killed.

I the LORD search the heart and examine the mind, to reward each person according to their conduct.

Jeremiah 17:10

God created every single one of them and so He knew their thoughts, their past, their present, and their future. This means that when God said they were wicked, they were truly wicked.

God’s mercy in the midst of judgement

God was welcoming to any foreigner who was willing to join the children of Israel and turn to Him (Isaiah 56:6-8). He had grace for any foreigner that turned to Him and repented from their ways (Jeremiah 12:15-17). However, these people were so steeped in wickedness, and their hearts were stone, so the only route left was judgement. This means that unless they turned from their ways, they met the fate of death that God had commanded.

Furthermore, it is important to note that these calls for violence should not just be strictly seen as violence. In fact, in these commands, God was carrying out justice for the wicked acts these people had engaged in (Proverbs 11:21, Ecclesiastes 8:11). The justice in the Old Testament also foreshadows the day of judgment and hell prophesied for the future (2 Corinthians 5:10.)

Know that He is God

However, I think it’s also very important that we understand that He is God, so He can do and undo. But we can trust in the fact that God’s actions are pure and holy because His nature never changes. So it’s not for us to question God, instead, we must learn to trust His decisions.

Does the clay say to the potter, ‘What are you making?’ Does your work say, ‘The potter has no hands’?

Isaiah 45:9

Acknowledging and understanding that God is God, and as a result is subject to no one, is vital to finding peace in your faith. Once you accept the sovereignty of God and the fact that He’s unquestionable, you will find solace in the fact that you can never fully understand God, but you can absolutely trust God.

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Esther Babatunde
Esther is a full-time child of God who works as an Investigator. She owns a blog where she talks about her personal journey to faith, confidence, and love. She is passionate about showing God's love to the world and drawing people to faith in Christ.