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What about God killing people in the Old Testament?

On Sunday evening I spoke at a church student group and afterwards one of the students spoke to me, looking for help in responding to this question that her friend, who isn't a Christian, had asked. She wanted to be able to give a thoughtful and helpful answer.

The story: Jesus led the people of Israel out of Egypt around 1300BC, through the wilderness for 40 years and into a partial conquest of the occupied land of Canaan, using them to judge the inhabitants of the land. The story is told in the Bible book of Joshua and its context. The whole Old Testament tells an epic story in which the God we know when we know Jesus sets the stage for his coming into the world to die for us. In wars and political dramas and small personal stories we see the grammar of this good news built up.

The fact remains: God used his people to kill other people. Gulp. What can be said? I'm not looking to explain it away. I want to ask how the Bible as a text "deals with" it. I'm not interested in easy answers, because these questions can't have easy answers. And I'm not wanting glib answers. It's a question about people dying. That's serious.

It's curious isn't it how it feels wrong... In the age of the Hollywood blockbuster we're fairly desensitised to death - though when you read it on the page it cuts deeper. Why should we care? Do we have a world-view that can make emotional sense of that? And why do we read the historicity of narrative and the existence of God more readily when it comes to the blood-stained pages (or at least some of them)?

Let's not say: The God of the Old Testament is mean and of the New is nice. 
a) Because we have one Bible, one God (in three persons).
b) Because of Ananias and Sapphira. What's with that?
c) Because it's not Love vs Wrath. Wrath is love's right response to evil.
d) Because the Bible's own self-reflection is that the God of the Old Testament is too gracious not too mean. The persistent question isn't why people die its why they keep getting forgiven. See the objections of Jonah the prophet sent to tell good news to the nasty city of Nineveh. He rages at God: I knew you'd forgive them so I ran away from preaching too them.
In Ten Words: Actually, 'The God of the Old Testament' is too forgiving.

Also, just worth noting: The Bible is a bloody and physical and messy book. Peter Leithart observes:
"Theology is a 'Victorian' enterprise, neoclassically bright and neat and clean, nothing out of place. Whereas the Bible talks about hair, blood, sweat, entrails, menstruation and genital emissions... Ponder these questions: Do theologians talk about the world the same way the Bible does? Do theologians talk about the same world the Bible does?"
Let's not concede the word genocide.
Genocide is such a loaded word after the atrocities of the last century. On which, notice that people killing people isn't a primative thing, it's a very modern thing -- and are the kinds of thing that cry out for answers, reconciliation and justice. We can watch the News and weep.
Genocide tends to be those in power killing innocents. That's not what happened in Canaan when the people were put to death.

i) They were given 400 years to turn to Christ from killing their children and various other evil practices. That's pretty excessive patience. Before we weep over their deaths we should weep over the evil they perpetrated while God was being patient with them.
ii) Played out on the stage of global politics was the liberation of Israel from slavery Egypt 40 years earlier (told in the book of Exodus). Everyone in Canaan knew about that. The account of Rahab tells us that everyone knew and everyone took a view on the matter.
iii) People, like Rahab the Canaanite prostitute, heard and turned to God. Everyone could do that.
iv) No-one had to die. They were asked to leave the land that they'd been occupying. They heard all that they heard, and stood their ground. Those who died died in defiance. It's a picture in human history of the defeat of defiant evil. A picture of Jesus' death and resurrection.
v) The same people used to exile/judge Canaan were subject to the same judgement themselves when they were exiled because they'd turned from Jesus to do the things that the people in Canaan did. There was no favouritism here.
"The Lord is not slow to fulfill his promise as some count slowness, but is patient toward you, not wishing that any should perish, but that all should reach repentance."
We find a story in the Bible that tells us that we are fleshly people - corrupted and broken beyond repair. Our condition is terminal. Yet, it is possible to die and be reborn to a new life that isn't fleshly - life in the Spirit. The flesh is into being bad or being good. The Spirit is into enjoying a loving relationship freely. Humanity is made to live life in relationship with the Father, Son and Holy Spirit.

The God of love is not indifferent to evil. He is jealous for his people and his Son and for his image in this world. He burns against those who harm what is good. And it's not that the story calms down in the New Testament, instead we find The Commander of the LORD's army who led Israel into Canaan becomes a member of the human race and his executed in our place outside the city of Jerusalem in the first century. This is the God who gets involved and bruised. The Triune God takes upon itself the wrath that sin deserves. It's a new moment in the love-filled life of God, a moment full of anguish and pain, to bring sinful people like us home to live in the life of God.

Our life is in his hands, but he cares, and invites us. And gives us ample opportunity. Every Old Testament judgement, like every Old Testament mercy is a road that leads to the cross of Jesus.

Those are a few of my words, what are yours? What are your questions? 


  1. I heard it said once that we find 'the God of the OT' mean, and 'the God of the NT' nice because we fear temporal judgment more than eternal.

    Not really an answer, but an interesting thought. And a way to widen the discussion...

  2. I think Carson puts it that way, saying that both love and wrath both go up a level in the NT.

  3. Nothing to add, just wanted to thank you for this. I realised quite recently (while reading Joshua, in fact) that I wouldn't know how to answer this question if a non-Christian asked it, and would probably still find it hard if a Christian asked it. This is really helpful for both situations, so thank you.

  4. Interstingly i read Acts 5 This morning about Ananias and Sapphira and struck me that even in the new testiment we read about some pretty serious things like people falling down dead after trying to fool the Holy Spirit. Jesus Christ is the same yesterday and today and forever. Amen to Hebrews 13:8

    The persistent question isn't why people die its why they keep getting forgiven Top quote mate... going to tweet this.

    bless you brother

  5. I listened to Mike Reeves preach on Rahab, and he goes out of his way to point out, Rahab knew this conquest of the land was going to be nothing like ethnic cleansing - it was a purging of wickedness from the land, something totally different.

    This is Leviticus 18.24-28...
    “Do not make yourselves unclean by any of these things, for by all these the nations I am driving out before you have become unclean, and the land became unclean, so that I punished its iniquity, and the land vomited out its inhabitants. But you shall keep my statutes and my rules and do none of these abominations, either the native or the stranger who sojourns among you (for the people of the land, who were before you, did all of these abominations, so that the land became unclean), lest the land vomit you out when you make it unclean, as it vomited out the nation that was before you."

    I think that helps too.

    You nail it here: "Those who died died in defiance. It's a picture in human history of the defeat of defiant evil. A picture of Jesus' death and resurrection."

    There are no quick, glib answers. But it actually feels very right that this is hard - it's always hard to face our own wickedness, to hear we are deserving of judgement. Refusing to take the 'God of the OT endorses genocide' question on its own terms is vital. We can rejoice that God is good and hates evil, this is very good news! Indeed, think of the wickedness perpetrated while he was (is) patient with them (with us), and weep. And isn't the bible full of such outcry? Weeping of that sort? When will you come and judge the wicked, Lord?

    If we take the hard stuff superficially, we miss all the rich goodness of God to be found by pausing to think about what assumptions we're bringing.

    This is a really great post, Bish, thank you.

  6. Oh my goodness, that is a top post - in terms of form and content!

  7. Thanks friends for the comments. Simple answers wont do, just tear-stained ones from "the vantage point of the cross." Still learning.

  8. This is certainly a challenging topic, and one that I plan to tackle in the next biblical/ spiritual post on my own blog. I think you've handled it pretty well Dave!

    Having watched a few episodes of 'the Atheist Experience' (a texas-based atheist programme aimed at 'religious' people - you can find some ep's of it through youtube) recently, it's clear that this 'bad' and 'immoral' God of the OT is one of the sticks they fall back on to beat Christianity with. I think the problem with this, of course, is that they're judging God by their own human definition of what is 'bad' or 'immoral', but nonetheless it is hard to relate to an atheist in these terms. For instance, one response to this might be that we should get our morals from God rather than judging him by our version of them, but of course an atheist by very definition doesn't believe in that God in the first place. Some of these guys are also very good at knowing the language of apologetics. They want straight, factual answers. Do you have any experience of answering this one against hard-line atheists, Dave?

    1. I think there's something in challenging why we think the events seem bad - challenging the terms of the conversation a little. It's not like I find the deaths of people in the Old Testament easy to handle, but I'm also not pretending its not there. Jesus doesn't seem embarrassed by it either, but then the story says he led his people out of Egypt and into the battle...

      I suppose we have to say -- either come into my world and let me show you how this works - how it coheres within itself and points to a radically different and more appealing story... or, you can turn it back on "them" because there's a whole lot about an atheist worldview that doesn't work coherently or make emotional or any other kind of sense of our experiences... or, if there's some genuine interest we can talk about Jesus. I don't want to dodge it but I don't just want to accept that because it looks like something unacceptable that it necessarily is.


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