Why is God So Violent in the Old Testament?

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In the Conquest Era studies, we learned God commanded the Hebrews to kill all the Canaanites. It is hard to understand why God would want to kill all the people in an entire race. But, in the Judges Era studies, we see the tragic consequences of not eliminating all the Canaanites. 

You have to remember that God gave the people of Canaan more than enough time to turn from their sinful ways, giving them almost 400 years to do so!   The Canaanites were aware of God's power and could have sought repentance (Joshua 2:10–11, 9:9).  The majority of the time, they persisted in their defiance of God to the very end.
The evil is obvious to anyone with a little familiarity with Canaanite society. Bestiality, incest, and even child sacrifice were common practices. Depraved sexual behavior was commonplace.  God declared, "The land vomited up its inhabitants" because of the Canaanites' wickedness (Leviticus 18:25).   Deuteronomy 7:3–5 states that the destruction of the Canaanites was more focused on the Canaanites' religion than on the Canaanites themselves.  The decision was not based on ethnicity.  There were still individual Canaanites, like Rahab in Jericho, who found that mercy awaited those who repented (Joshua 2, Rahab is found in Christ's lineage!).   God's aim is that the wicked turn from their wickedness rather than die.
God utilized the invasion of Canaan to establish a religious/historical setting in which He could someday bring the Messiah to the world.  The Messiah as bringing deliverance not only to Israel but also to Israel's adversaries, including Canaan.

Powerful Lesson from a Fiction Book

Recently while reading a fiction book, I found it explained better than I had been explaining it so I will quote from Randall Arthur's (one of my favorite authors) excellent book, A Quiet Roar

Sunday morning the congregation was asked to turn to the Old Testament text, Numbers 25:3–5. 

Kathleen read, “Israel aligned itself with Baal of Peor and the LORD’s anger burned against Israel. The LORD said to Moses, ‘Take all the leaders of the people and execute them in broad daylight before the LORD so that his burning anger may turn away from Israel.’ So Moses told Israel’s judges, ‘Kill each of the men who aligned themselves with Baal of Peor.’”

Kathleen gave the people a second or two to absorb the words. 

“A great number of people in the world,” she began, “who oppose God, and who grow angry just by thinking about him, often refer to Old Testament stories like this—and there are several—where God kills large numbers of people, seemingly without heart and without discrimination. And they say, ‘This is a mean and hateful God, and I want nothing to do with him.’

“Even Christians struggle with these stories.

“So…how do we explain this dark side of God? How do we explain this seeming discrepancy between God’s loving side and God’s killing side?

“Well, shortly after man’s fall, God revealed he would implement a plan to provide a Savior for all mankind.

“God then handcrafted a nation through which he would unfold that plan, and at the appointed time bring the Savior into the world.

“This plan, beginning with Abraham, unfolded step-by-step through Israel over a two-thousand-year period. Along the way, God established his name through direct revelations. He established his power and authority through unparalleled miracles. He established his morality through his commandments. He established his wisdom through the Old Testament scriptures. He established his trustworthiness through hundreds of fulfilled prophecies. He established his majesty through a system of awe-inspiring worship that included priests, sacrifices, feasts and a magnificent temple. He established his love through his undying patience with the Israeli people.

“And it all culminated with the incarnation— when God stepped into human skin and revealed himself as the promised Messiah who would be sacrificed for the sins of the world.

“Again, God unfolded this plan through a legitimate, visible, and distinct people group.

“Now, follow my thoughts here.

“If Israel had at any point during this two- thousand-year period been disabled, dismantled, or destroyed—from within or without—there would have been no ongoing revelation of God, no Savior, and no redemption. If Israel had gone down, so would have God’s plan of redemption for the whole world.

“So…was Israel at any point leading up to the incarnation ever threatened or compromised? Yes. Many times. From outside. And from within. Therefore, in order to unfold his plan all the way to fruition, God was forced to protect Israel at every juncture.

“Look at it this way: Israel’s two-thousand-year history, from Abraham to the Incarnation, was a pregnancy, and God was going to protect that pregnancy at any and all cost, even if he had to kill large groups of people to do it.

“In order to bring salvation to the billions, he was willing to kill the thousands who endangered the pregnancy.

“Had God, for example, not stepped in—here in Numbers chapter twenty-five—and killed all the leaders of this false god movement, Israel would have conceivably slid into paganism and permanently walked away from God altogether. And then, the pregnancy—his plan to bring redemption to the world—would have been aborted or ended in a still birth.

“So…these mass killings in the Old Testament are not the random acts of a mean, bored, or highly volatile God. Rather, they show God’s passion to provide redemption to every individual born to the human race.

“He killed because he loved. Actually, God could not have said 'I love you' in any greater way.”

Arthur, Randall. A Quiet Roar: Sometimes Disruption Is Overdue (pp. 175-176). Life Image Publishers.


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