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Old Testament Violence | Part 1

Derek Caldwell

How do we understand Old Testament violence in light of God being loving?

And Jonah stalked

to his shaded seat

and waited for God

to come around

to his way of thinking.

And God is still waiting

for a host of Jonahs

in their comfortable houses

to come around

to his way of loving.

Thomas John Carlisle, “You, Jonah!”[1]

The God of the Old Testament is arguably the most unpleasant character in all fiction: jealous and proud of it; a petty, unjust, unforgiving control-freak; a vindictive, bloodthirsty ethnic cleanser; a misogynistic, homophobic, racist, infanticidal, genocidal, filicidal, pestilential, megalomaniacal, sadomasochistic, capriciously malevolent bully.

-Richard Dawkins[2]

What we’ve got here is failure to communicate. Between Carlile and Dawkins, there are two competing visions of the God of the Old Testament. The former is a fairly old understanding, and the latter a fairly new one, though not without ancient antecedents. On the face of it, one cannot help but to see the justification for Dawkins’s anger, for if this were the depiction of a god or gods in any text, that god or gods would be condemned rightly. Therefore, because of Old Testament violence, one could justify rejecting God.

The easy solution might be to just ditch the “Old Testament God” for the “New Testament God,” Jesus. Or, more radically, we could just ditch all the gods. These are both solutions that have been attempted before. They are difficult to maintain, of course, for one very important reason: Jesus. First, Jesus Himself seems to look at God as depicted in the Old Testament and refer to Him as “Abba, Father.” Second, without Jesus and the revolution He began, it is very unlikely that Richard Dawkins would ever have an issue with the depiction of the Old Testament God.[3]

Technically, the issue of Old Testament violence is not communication, but rather, interpretation. The difficulty arises when we realize that the Hebrew Scriptures are written for us, yes, but not to us. It can be difficult to understand the context and meaning within a culture from generation to generation. Now imagine understanding manuscripts from a totally different culture, in a totally different geographical space, with a different language, separated by thousands of years. In the West, the problem is exacerbated by assumed familiarity with the biblical text; we think we know it even if we do not. We think we are able to interpret the Bible, and Old Testament violence in particular, when in reality we are missing important information about the culture in which it was written.

What I hope to show in the following discussion is that Richard Dawkins and others who make similar claims, as sincere as they are, are not well-trained exegetes (Biblical interpreters). Interestingly, they interpret the Bible more like religious fundamentalists, which means they are selectively literal when it serves their purposes. Mind you, I’m not claiming they do this in bad faith (pardon the pun). Who knows, this may have been the interpretation of the scriptures they were given growing up. It is easy to take certain things for granted in the text, assuming they were only meant in a literal fashion, when you don’t know that there are multiple valid interpretations (some more valid than others).

Interpreting Old Testament Violence Well

I would love to give just a brief example of what sloppy interpretation can do. What if I told you that in the 1960s during the height of the bloody and brutal Vietnam War, a man was traveling the states and yelling all over the radio, “Absolute war is good! Despise innocent lives!” This was a very popular message too. You would rightly be disgusted by this rhetoric and be reminded of Rwanda’s radio programs calling to “exterminate” the minority Tutsi “cockroaches” leading up to their genocidal slaughter. You may begin to connect the dots. Perhaps this influential speaker was somewhat to blame for the Vietnam War. Did he help create, or even catalyze, a generation into thinking that it was good to destroy innocent people? Does that explain the brutality of the Vietnam War? Perhaps it does!

There is a problem, though: The story is, well, all wrong. Now, the person I’m speaking about—musician Edwin Starr—did sing all of those words in his popular song, “War.” The problem is I’ve taken out some of the words in between those words that would show his song is actually against war and against the destruction of innocent lives. Taking words out of context led me to not only the wrong message, but also to the wrong relationship between Starr’s song and the war it was interacting with. I’ve failed to pay attention to the context within the text itself and culturally. I’ve let my incorrect reading direct me to an incorrect conclusion about what the text says. Our own fatal flaws in interpreting the Old Testament are similar, the major difference being that the gap between us and ancient Israel makes these interpretive mistakes much harder to discover. Nonetheless, we shall embark on this series of articles on Old Testament violence on a quest to meet the God of the Old Testament. I think you may be surprised by what you find.

The question before us is this: is the God of the Old Testament different from the God of the New Testament? The fact that Jesus is identified very closely to the God of the Old Testament—so close that one can say they are of the same Essence yet different Persons[4]—and the fact that Jesus, the God of love, calls this allegedly “angry” Old Testament God Abba, an affectionate term for Father, makes it difficult to separate the two easily. I once heard a well-known atheist say, in sum, that Christianity and Christ would’ve been fine, benign at the least, had they not rather unfortunately aligned themselves to the Hebrew scriptures and their awful depiction of Yahweh. But Jesus Himself saw no problem. His issue was not with the God of the Hebrew scriptures or Old Testament violence, but with the ways in which people were interpreting this God and using Him for their own gain. No doubt Jesus must still feel the same today.

I would like to invite you on a journey to read the Bible with fresh eyes. Swiss theologian Karl Barth described the journey so well:

What is there within the Bible? What sort of house is it to which the Bible is the door? What sort of country is spread before our eyes when we throw the Bible open?


When we step through the door, we recognize immediately that we are in a new world which takes a bit of getting used to. It behooves us to get our bearings and to try discerning up from down. Into the “Strange New World of the Bible” we have plunged, and in it, we find many things:

God, God’s sovereignty, God’s glory, God’s incomprehensible love. Not the history of man but the history of God! Not the virtues of men but the virtues of him who hath called us out of darkness into his marvelous light! Not human standpoints but the standpoint of God!


And we find not only a strange world, but longings finally heard and understood:

We live in a sick old world which cries from its soul, out of deepest need: Heal me, O Lord, and I shall be healed! In all men, whoever and wherever and whatever and however they may be, there is a longing for exactly this which is here within the Bible.


Before you embark on this journey, I would like to make you an offer, and ask you for help. The critical questions people have about the Old Testament and its depiction of God are legion—the texts that I could choose from and write about would fill many volumes of books. Sometimes it takes a while to explain texts from such drastically different times and places. That said, this series of articles clearly will not touch on every possible verse or topic. In the effort to be both robust and concise, certain topics just didn’t make it in, and even more conspicuously, certain texts are not addressed. This series of articles is meant to address some of the most controversial topics depicting physical violence against human beings allegedly endorsed and/or enacted by God. Other topics like, say, animal sacrifices are not discussed because they do not fit into that already large category. But for any questions that remain after you read these articles (including the aforementioned animal sacrifices), please help us and others out by emailing them to us, and we will answer them here, in what I am considering a living series on the Old Testament.

As we travel toward this strange new world, we will be confronted with the gritty reality of what it means to be human in a fallen world, including various types of abuse, betrayals, and bloodshed. It is a collection of books about the supernatural, yes, but it is also an earthy book where no blind eye is turned to the depths of darkness. But we will also be confronted with a God who never quite does what we expect of Him. And thank God for that. 

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

[Author’s Note: These are largely interpretive matters of long-standing debate within Judaism and Christianity. The views expressed here are some possible ways that make sense of violence in the Old Testament that I find persuasive, but they do not necessarily represent the views of each member of the Lighten team.]

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[1] Thomas John Carlisle, “You! Jonah!” in You! Jonah! Poems by Thomas John Carlisle (Grand Rapids, MI: Eerdmans, 1968), 64.

[2] Richard Dawkins, The God Delusion (Boston, New York: Mariner, 2006), 51.

[3] See Tom Holland, Dominion (Basic Books, 2021); Rodney Stark, For the Glory of God (Princeton University Press, 2021); John Dickson, Bullies and Saints (Zondervan, 2021); Vishnal Mangalwadi, The Book That Made Your World (Thomas Nelson, 2011); Vincent Carroll and David Shiflett, Christianity on Trial (Encounter Books, 2002). See also Premier Unbelievable?, “NT Wright & Tom Holland: How St. Paul changed the world (Full Show),” YouTube Video, 58:08, July 20, 2018, https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=nlf_ULB26cU.

[4] This terminology was employed in the early centuries of the church to describe how God could be both one (Deuteronomy 6:4) and yet be identified as Father, Son, and Holy Spirit, three separate entities. This one-in-threeness, known largely today as the Trinity, was defined at the Council of Nicea as being one being/essence in three persons. As others have often described it, it is one what in three whos. My what is “human being,” and my “who” is Derek. The doctrine of the Trinity is mysterious, and perils abound when we try to define it with analogies, one may help. When I was growing up, it was typically only my parents and me in the household. We were all Caldwells. Together, as a family unit with close ties unlike any other ties anyone else had to us, we made up sort of a unified one. And yet, we were different: Caldwell the father was not Caldwell the mother was not Caldwell the son was not Caldwell the father, and yet all were Caldwell. Likewise, God the Father is not God the Son is not God the Holy Spirit is not God the Father, but all are God. This analogy can be taken too far (and, as always, it does not go far enough in actually explaining the mystery of the Trinity, as no analogy can since an analogy requires some sort of similarity and the Trinity is utterly without parallel), but I hope it is at least illustrative of one thing: a lack of contradiction. While Christians are often accused of some sort of logical fallacy in saying that God is both one and three, there is no contradiction. If we said God was one essence in three essences, that would be a contradiction. If we said God was one person in three persons, that would be a contradiction. But when we say God is one essence in three persons, there is no contradiction, anymore than saying the Caldwells are one family in three relatives or human beings are one species in billions of individuals.

[5] Karl Barth, “The Strange New World of the Bible,” in The Word of God and the Word of Man, trans. Douglas Horton(Gloucester, MA: Peter Smith, 1978), 28.

[6] Ibid., 45.

[7] Ibid., 50.