What the Old Testament Says
Love is patient, love is kind.... [I]t is not easily angered, it keeps no record of wrongs.
1 Corinthians 13:4-7
One afternoon when I went out to collect the mail, I got collared by a pair of Mormon missionaries. Unable to escape, I decided that the best defense was a good offense, and I started in with, “Do you believe the story of the Great Flood?” That was the wrong question, but I quickly recognized my mistake and asked the question that I should have asked to begin with: “Do you approve of what happens in the story of the Great Flood?”
For the two young Mormons, the answer to both questions was an unqualified, unhesitating “Yes,” but however similar the two questions seem, they are quite different. “Do you believe in the Great Flood?” is a question about whether an event happened or not; it is a question about rainbows and animals going up two-by-two. “Do you approve of the Great Flood?” is a question about an act of global genocide; it is a question about three year olds floating bloated and blue atop the flood waters.
Approving of the OT is a more serious matter than merely recognizing the OT as part of God’s ongoing revelation. Approving means saying things like, “Yes, drowning those toddlers was the right thing to do.”
Approving of the OT is where people sometimes stumble.
Critics of the OT sometimes complain that it isn’t compatible with the NT. Using the Two Commandments as the test criteria, if the OT portrays God as doing something immoral, then it is in violation of the First Commandment, which Jesus called the greatest commandment: to Love God (Matt. 22:36-40). Similarly, if the OT promotes unloving behavior toward people, then it violates the Second Commandment of Love your neighbor as yourself.
Raymund Schwager is a Bible scholar who has written several books about OT violence, and by his calculation the OT contains about a thousand verses where God performs violent acts, while in another hundred passages God orders others to kill on his behalf (Pinker, p. 10). Listing all 1,100 of these acts of violence is outside the scope of this book, especially since violence isn’t the only source of discomfort for readers of the OT. As a result, I will be picking and choosing.
In selecting which OT passages to list, my goal is to focus on scriptures that have caused the most trouble throughout Christianity’s history, as these scriptures will be referenced in later chapters by both critics and defenders of the OT. I have included some lesser-known selections here as well, with the goal of showing how widespread these problematic passages are.
Some acts of violence in the OT seem to violate the commandment to Love your neighbor as yourself. And when an act of violence is ordered by or perpetrated by God, God sometimes seems immoral or monstrous, which thereby violates the commandment to Love God.
God inundates the world with the Great Flood, which eliminates all but eight people from the planet. (Gen. 6-9)
God destroys the twin cities of Sodom and Gomorrah. (Gen. 18-19)
God kills all the firstborn of Egypt. (Exod. 12:29)
God kills the army of Egypt so that “Not one of them survived.” (Exod. 14:28)
Two priests are burned to death by God for using “unauthorized fire.” (Lev. 10:1-2)
An unspecified number of Israelites are killed at God’s command “so that the Lord’s fierce anger may turn away from Israel.” (Num. 25:4-5)
Twenty-four thousand Israelites are killed by a plague sent by God. The plague is ended only when Phinehas, grandson of Aaron, takes it upon himself to kill an Israelite man and the Midianite woman the man has married. (Num. 25:6-11)
The army kills all the adult men of the Midianites “as the Lord commanded,” but takes the women and children as spoils of war. This infuriates Moses, who orders the elimination of the women and the boys, but allows the army to keep the virginal girls for themselves. (Num. 31:7-18)
Several cities of Amorites belonging to King Sihon are wiped out, “For the Lord your God had made [Sihon’s] spirit stubborn and his heart obstinate in order to give him into your hands.... At that time we took all his towns and completely destroyed them — men, women, and children, we left no survivors. But the livestock and the plunder from the towns we had captured we carried off for ourselves.” (Deut. 2:30-35)
Sixty walled cities belonging to King Og of Bashan are pacified with God’s blessing, along with “a great many” unwalled villages. As with King Sihon’s cities, only the livestock and plunder are taken as prey of war. (Deut. 3:3-8)
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