Today: Thursday, November 21, 2019

Obstacles to faith: The Old Testament is so violent    (8/4/2013 1)

In the Old Testament, perhaps especially in the Psalms, we meet God as righteous, holy and just — loving, faithful, merciful, forgiving. He patiently longs for people to turn their backs on wickedness and turn to him.

However, when we get to the conquest of the promised land, and Joshua (who is commanded by God to completely destroy Jericho and its population, taking no prisoners, no slaves, no cattle, and no plunder for the troops), what are we to make of that?

Some people feel that the violence they find in the Old Testament makes it extremely difficult to accept a faith centered around a god who not only tolerates that violence, but even seems to be the cause of some of it. How can this violence be reconciled with a God whom Christians claim to be loving and gentle?

Perhaps there is no completely satisfying answer, but I offer some pointers that might help in the meantime:

  1. Warfare in ancient times — In the context of warfare in 1500BC, there was nothing unusual about the treatment of the population of Jericho.  Taking prisoners and then guarding and feeding them was not a viable option for an army on the move. Of course, that doesn’t make it any nicer.
  2. Canaanite culture and society — During the late bronze and early iron ages, Canaan was dotted with strong, walled, industrial and trade centres surrounded by orchards, vineyards, grain fields and pasture land. It was indeed a ‘land flowing with milk and honey’. However, it was a very unjust and corrupt society, and the prevailing religion was worship of Baal, which involved fertility rituals that included human sacrifice, large-scale temple-slave prostitution, and worse. Centuries earlier, God had told Abraham that his descendants would return to Canaan after 4 generations, when the sin of the Canaanites had reached its peak (Genesis [OT] chapter 15, verse 16). This was the time.
  3. 3. God’s sovereign judgment — Before the conquest began, God had told the people what was going on: “It is not because of your righteousness or integrity that you are going to take possession of the land; but on account of the wickedness of these nations, to accomplish what he swore to your fathers Abraham, Isaac and Jacob.” (Deuteronomy [OT] chapter 9, verses 4-6). God had a dual purpose: to bring judgment on the wickedness of the Canaanites, while preserving the purity of the Israelites (through whom he planned to bless the world in the fullness of time). In fact not everyone in Jericho was put to the sword; the bible tells us about Rahab, one of the temple prostitutes, who had come to believe in God and helped the Israelite spies to escape. She joined the Israelites, and her name later turns up in the family tree of Jesus himself.
  4. God’s plan of salvation — Abraham had been told by God that he would be the father of a great nation that would be a blessing to the world. This insignificant nation would need to be protected and their religion kept undefiled with other ‘gods’ until the moment arrived for the saviour of the world to be born. What God was doing in Canaan, strange though it may seem, was a step on the way to the coming of the Kingdom of God. Jesus himself was a victim of violence on the cross, but he rejected violence himself, and transformed it by bearing our sin on the cross, rising again from the dead, and bringing us new life.

Pray: Lord, there are some things in the Bible which are very difficult to understand. Please help me to keep hold of the fact that Jesus died for me and that your love for me is greater than I can ever understand. Amen.

Think about: Do you think there is ever call for ‘tough love’?

Challenge: Read the book The God I Don’t Understand by Christopher Wright — it’s very helpful for the tough questions of faith.

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