Question & Answer Forum: Violence in the Old Testament

Why is there so much violence in the old covenant (testament)?

Violence is neither the character of God nor His intention. By contrasting the scenes in Genesis 1 and 2 with Genesis 6, we see that violence came in with man’s sin. The first mention of “violence” (Strong’s #2555) is in Genesis 6:11, “The earth was filled with violence.” The next mention is in verse 13, where God says, “The end of all flesh is come before Me; for the earth is filled with violence through them.” Violence is characteristic of man in his alienation from God (Rom 1:28-32). While it is true that the Old Testament records much more violence than the New Testament, we must realize that human nature has not changed. The Holocaust and genocides in Eastern Europe, the Middle East, and several nations in Africa in recent years remind us of this. Every news report contains examples of violence. The prophetic Scriptures assure us that violence will be present on the earth until the rightful King reigns in righteousness, when “They shall not hurt nor destroy in all My holy mountain: for the earth shall be full of the knowledge of the Lord, as the waters cover the sea” (Isa 11:9).

The Old Testament records mankind’s conduct in rebellion against God, historically and prophetically. The giving of the law to Israel only accentuated the sinfulness of those who received it (Rom 5:20). The imposition of law restrained certain conduct, but did not remove the root cause, which is in the heart of man (Matt 15:19). Violation of the law carried consequences. Hebrews 2:2 tells us that, under the law “every transgression and disobedience received a just recompense of reward.” Hebrews 10:28 states, “He that despised Moses’ law died without mercy under two or three witnesses.”

Perhaps the questioner has in mind not only man’s violence against his fellowman in general, but God’s commandment to Israel to completely destroy the inhabitants of Canaan. In relation to the Canaanites, we must remember that the wages of sin is death (Rom 3:23). Romans 1:32 states that “they which commit such things (the sins of the previous verses) are worthy of death.” God has declared that He has no pleasure in the death of the wicked, but desires that the wicked turn from his way and find forgiveness (Eze 33:11). If he does not turn, judgment is the only alternative. Israel did not possess the land until the iniquity of the Amorites was full (Gen 15:16). Ezra 9:11 gives God’s description of the land of Canaan, or actually, a commentary on the wickedness of its inhabitants: “It is an unclean land with the filthiness of the people of the lands, with their abominations, which have filled it from one end to another with their uncleanness.” While 1 Corinthians 10 assures us that the history of Israel, as recorded in the Old Testament, is full of spiritual lessons for us, we must not lose sight of the fact that sin demands judgment, and that there is a limit to the longsuffering of God.

If we consider the animal sacrifices of the children of Israel as a form of “violence,” we can see it as a reminder that nearness to God can only come by means of the shedding of blood – thus pointing forward to the perfect and abiding sacrifice of Christ to bring us near to God. Hebrews 9:22 gives the divine principle: “without shedding of blood is no remission.”

While the Scriptures are plain that man has not “improved” with the passing of time, those of us privileged to live in so-called “Christian” nations are not accustomed to violence of an open and large-scale nature. We should thank God for this, and realize that it is, at least in part, a result of God-fearing men seeking to incorporate Biblical principles of fairness and mercy into the laws of the land. As the Lord Jesus enunciates the moral principles of the kingdom of heaven in Matthew 5, 6, and 7, we notice a distinct change away from violence. For example, in chapter 5, those who are pronounced “blessed” are the meek (v5), merciful (v7), and peacemakers (v9). In verses 38 and 39 the Lord contrasts the principle of “an eye for an eye” with “resist not evil.” Verses 43 and 44 contrast “hate thine enemy” with “love your enemies.” Verse 45 tells us that the attitudes and actions of those who obey the Lord’s commandments reflect the character of their Father in heaven. In 1 Timothy 2:2-4 we are instructed to pray “for kings, and for all that are in authority; that we may lead a quiet and peaceable life in all godliness and honesty. For this is good and acceptable in the sight of God our Savior; Who will have all men to be saved, and to come unto the knowledge of the truth.” We thank God for all places where peaceful conditions enable the gospel to be preached freely and saints to gather together without fear. We also look forward with expectation to God’s eternal day when “God shall wipe away all tears from their eyes; and there shall be no more death, neither sorrow, nor crying, neither shall there be any more pain: for the former things are passed away” (Rev 21:4). The conditions of the new heavens and new earth wherein dwelleth (permanently resides) righteousness (2Peter 3:13) will be founded on the sacrifice of the Lord Jesus. Colossians 1:20 speaks of the scope of the work of Christ in these words: “And, having made peace through the blood of His cross, by Him to reconcile all things unto Himself; by Him, I say, whether they be things in earth, or things in heaven.”

Kent Hendrickson