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God’s Hatred | Old Testament Violence, Part 5

Derek Caldwell

Is God’s hatred arbitrary?

The LORD examines the righteous,

but the wicked, those who love violence,

he hates with a passion.

Psalm 11:5

Psalm 11:5 asserts that God hates those who love violence. Again, this is a notion that people find disappointing—how could God hate someone? —but if we put some flesh on the topic, I think we might find it less so. I remember walking into the Illinois Holocaust Museum in Skokie a few years back and seeing the human destruction left in the wake of extreme human evil. Adding to the sadness was that my family and I had to pass through metal detectors to even enter the museum. The threat of violence against the Jewish people and the desire to erase their history is still very real today.

In this museum, there were many truly horrific images. Saying that the holocaust killed six million people almost does not affect many people because visualizing six million slaughtered people is unfathomable. The brain simply can’t comprehend. But in that museum, while it talks about the six million, it also talks about the individuals. It talks about the begging mother and the whimpering child, both soon to be executed and booted over into a mass grave. God hates this evil.

While I, too, find it difficult to wrestle with God hating individuals, I cannot for the life of me imagine any other emotion He could have toward an Adolf Hitler, Heinrich Himmler, Adolf Eichmann, or Reinhard Heydrich, among others. And these are the architects of the holocaust, not the operators. No, it took thousands of other people whose names are largely not remembered by history to get to six million deaths. God is more merciful than me, of course, but I can’t think of another emotion one could have toward most of these people, these mass murderers of people God loves. But lest any of us grow too self-righteous in this matter, we should be reminded that it is incredibly rare for people to break out of their cultural captivity and resist power structures surrounding them to do the right thing. Studies have shown us that it was not particularly evil people who went along with these atrocities but ordinary people like you and me.[1]

That said, we still need to look deeper into the biblical text to understand what it means for God to “hate” someone. There are a few different ways that the Bible uses the word hate. First, it is sometimes used as a Hebrew idiom of comparison. For instance, when God says that he loves Jacob and hates Esau (which comes from Malachi 1:3, not Genesis, a sign that something other than an arbitrary decision to hate is in view), it may be saying that the way in which God loves Jacob, His chosen vessel and people (Israel), will make it look as if He hates Esau. Esau the person ended up doing okay, reconciling with Jacob. If you looked at his life, you probably wouldn’t walk away with the conclusion that God “hated” him. However, we can see that God favored Jacob’s descendants over Esau’s—the Edomites, who were an enduring problem (they remained hateful antagonists of the Jewish people to the end, perhaps explaining why Rome’s client king, Herod the Great—of Jewish and Edomite ancestry—had no qualms, according to Matthew 2:16-18, with ordering the death of infants and toddlers in the vicinity Bethlehem in an attempt to kill the young Jewish Messiah, Jesus). And so, as an additional option, it cannot be overlooked that the actions of Edom led to God’s hatred, and not the other way around.

Nonetheless, Jesus uses the same Hebrew idiom of comparison when He says that if we follow Him, we must “hate” our mothers, fathers, sisters, brothers, spouse, and children. Keep in mind, if we take this command literally and not as an idiomatic comparison, it goes against Old and New Testament teaching elsewhere (Exodus 20:12; Ephesians 6:1-3). For instance, how does one hate their spouse while also loving them like Christ loved the Church (Ephesians 5:25)? What Jesus is saying is that, in comparison, we must love Him above all and do our best in service of Him, perhaps even so much so that to the world it appears as if we comparatively hate our own families (of course, we don’t, and we need to be known for our love for one another—but we can only love others fully if we love Christ first and foremost). It is a hyperbolic statement of comparison.

Second, hate is a Hebrew word used in covenantal language. Those who pry themselves from God’s covenant are also said to be hated. This was common covenantal language in the ancient Near East, which is the cultural context in which the Old Testament was written. Recall that Esau disrupted typical genetic flow of the covenant by selling his birthright (Genesis 25:29-34). In a sense, God did not choose to hate Esau; rather, Esau chose the identity of “hated,” covenantally speaking. As John Walton points out, it is a common word used in the ancient Near East generally regarding political covenants as well.[2] One party who “hates” another, says Andrew Riley, “is a metaphor for and communicates an unstable or broken covenant.”[3]

As true as the above statements may be, that does not mean that God’s hatred is an empty label meant to say something else less harsh. God’s hatred does indeed refer to a strong negative emotion, but it is not a capricious reaction like the pagan gods or the way human beings might hate others. As explained in the NET Bible notes, “The Lord ‘hates’ the wicked in the sense that he despises their wicked character and deeds and actively opposes and judges them for their wickedness.”[4] For instance, God did not want Israel to be like the Canaanites because He detests, or “hates,” their religious practices, such as child sacrifice. Surely that is something we want God to hate! Likewise, God tells us to hate evil (Amos 5:15), such as the type of evil mentioned a few verses earlier: “those who oppress the innocent and take bribes, those who deprive the poor of justice in the courts.” God’s “hatred” is an emotion of protective judgment and redemptive justice.

Note that God is not said to “hate” everyone outside of the covenant, but those who are particularly wicked, which could even be those among His own people. The Scriptures are full of many instances of God’s gracious care and compassion for humble Gentiles. Indeed, they are often examples of faithfulness in the New Testament, like when Jesus says of the Roman centurion, “Truly I tell you, I have not found anyone in Israel with such great faith” (Matt 10:8; Luke 7:9).

While there is a general understanding of our guilt before God, His hatred must be earned the hard way. If God chooses to hate, it is due to wickedness. Since God is not diminished or hurt by wickedness in His own nature or person—but only humans are—then God may “hate” a person because of what their wickedness has done to others and for the hollowing-out effect it has on the perpetrator themselves. He would rather love a person, but their own hatred of God and their neighbors, and their love of evil bring God’s patient, oftentimes longsuffering justice. Hate, then, as it applies to God’s emotional life, should not be seen as sinful, capricious, or arbitrary in any sense, but as responsive, protective, and redemptive. God does not arbitrarily hate; He “hates” because He loves, and His love is so great that He even loves and seeks to redeem those whose thoughts and actions He hates.

All articles in this series:

Old Testament Violence | Part 1 Introduction

God’s Judgment | Old Testament Violence, Part 2

God’s Jealousy | Old Testament Violence, Part 3

God’s Wrath | Old Testament Violence, Part 4

God’s Hatred | Old Testament Violence, Part 5

The Fear of God | Old Testament Violence, Part 6

Warfare in Ancient Israel | Old Testament Violence, Part 7

Did God Destroy the Canaanites? | Old Testament Violence, Part 8

Did God Destroy the Amalekites? | Old Testament Violence, Part 9

Plague on the Firstborn | Old Testament Violence, Part 10

The Flood | Old Testament Violence, Part 11

Understanding Old Testament Law | Old Testament Violence, Part 12

Death Penalty in the Law | Old Testament Violence, Part 13

Women and the Law | Old Testament Violence, Part 14

Slavery in Ancient Israel | Old Testament Violence, Part 15

To His Way of Loving | Old Testament Violence, Part 16

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Image: Paul Klee (1879-1940), “Death and fire,” 1940.

[1] You can learn more about this in Christopher Browning’s Ordinary Men: Reserve Police Battalion 101 and the Final Solution in Poland (Harper Collins, 1992) and the new edition of Stanley Milgram’s Obedience to Authority: An Experimental View (Harper Perennial Modern Classics, 2009).

[2] John H. Walton and J. Harvey Walton, The Lost World of the Israelite Conquest (Downers Grove, IL: IVP Academic, 2017), 155.

[3] Andrew J. Riley, “Zȇru, ‘to Hate’ as a Metaphor for Covenant Instability,” in Bill T. Arnold, et. al. (eds.), Windows to the Ancient World of the Hebrew Bible (Winona Lake, IN: Eisenbrauns, 2014), 184. Cited in Walton and Walton, 155.

[4] The NET Bible First Edition Notes (Biblical Studies Press, 2006), Logos.