Lesson 2: Violence in the Old Testament

Whenever the modern prophets look for scripture to support their calls to violence, they turn to the Old Testament. Many take that for granted, believing that part of the Bible presents a violent God who commands his people to viciously destroy their enemies. You certainly could get that picture if you read only accounts of the Exodus, the Promised Land invasion, and other calls to arms.

However, you don’t have to read much further to realize there is more going on. Usually, Israel is the one afflicted by violence imposed by powerful pagan empires. They are the ones suffering destruction of their homes, deportation to foreign lands, and the slaughter of their children.

It’s true that some of the tradition promises God will eventually show his power and take revenge, blow for blow. In some, he will raise up a messianic military leader like David who will defeat their enemies, restore unity, and grant self-rule.

However, others see violence as a synonym for the wickedness that corrupts creation and resists God’s will. The vicious murder of Abel by his brother, Cain, provides a mythical explanation for why brothers such as Abraham and Lot, Jacob and Esau, Joseph and his eleven siblings and David’s children fight one another. God provides the Torah law as guidance for living together without violence.

The Wisdom literature also teaches how to be successful and prosperous using peaceful co-operation. It counsels the wise use of words, not physical violence, to overcome strife, recognizing violent language also disrupts the community.

Much, but not all of the prophetic tradition builds on a nonviolent approach. The prophets define violence as the powerful oppressing the weak and accuse the rich of this when they do not care for the poor entrusted to them.

Isaiah describes the Messiah performing God’s work without violence when he writes “A bruised reed he will not break, and a dimly burning wick, he will not quench; he will faithfully bring forth justice.” (Isiah 42:3) He also sees peace as a characteristic of the new Jerusalem: “Violence shall no more be heard in your land, devastation or destruction within your borders.” (Isaiah 60:18)

Many of us see the Old Testament ending up championing loving kindness. Christians should especially see a development in which believers move beyond a warrior god to one of endless love, mercy, and forgiveness.

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