The God of the Old Testament: The Instant Executioner

Today’s post was written by Vanu Kantayya, one of my students at Northern Baptist Seminary. Vanu wrote a research paper for the course “Old Testament Theology: The God of the Old Testament,” in which she seeks to demonstrate that the God of the Old Testament is the same God of the New Testament. Her paper is titled: “The God of the Old Testament and the God of the New Testament.”

This post is the fifth installment in this series of studies on the God of the Old Testament.  For previous posts in this series, see the links below.

Claude Mariottini
Professor of Old Testament
Northern Baptist Seminary


Seibert describes God as an instant executioner in certain incidents where intermediaries are not used. He considers the instant executions by God as use of excessive lethal force and unwarranted for the offense involved.[1] For instance, why does God kill Judah’s sons, Er and Onan? What about the death of Aaron’s sons Nadab and Abihu? Why was Uzzah killed for trying to save the ark from falling off the cart?

Human wisdom and judgement is flawed to say the least when compared to God’s and how can a created being question the creator’s actions? Despite all that, God allows us to question him, argue with him, and even intercede for him to change his course of action. As evident in some of the above mentioned narratives, God does change his mind and course of action at times when his children ask. He is a gracious and merciful God.

The Case of Er and Onan

Seibert’s view of God’s actions against the sons of Judah is hampered by his limited view of the narrative. I would suggest that he only looks at the situation from the male point of view. There is a woman involved who is central to the story. Her name is Tamar. She is not an Israelite woman by birth, but she conducts herself like one in righteousness, following the laws of Yahweh.

Although nobody else stands up for her rights, I would venture to say that God does. Since the only reason given for Er’s death is his wickedness, he must have been very evil for God to have killed him. Hamilton explains that Er was the first individual to be killed by Yahweh. Previously, in the case of Noah or Sodom and Gomorrah, groups of people were destroyed.[2]

Yahweh had chosen Judah among the sons of Jacob for his inheritance. Could the extremely wicked Er, the first born of Judah, be allowed to inherit a righteous blessing? When Jacob blesses his children, he says, “the scepter shall not depart from Judah” and he goes on to speak about a ruler coming from the line of Judah (Gen. 49:9-12).

How could a holy God allow a wicked person who despised his laws to be part of the inheritance of the royal line of David and eventually of Jesus? It is my opinion that Er was killed for these reasons. Also, I do not believe Er’s death was instantaneous since verse 7 does not indicate any urgency. As I have mentioned earlier, Yahweh is not sexist. On the contrary, he makes provision for the defenseless in his laws; not just for a woman who is raped, but also in the case of the Levirate marriage (Deut. 25:5-10).

If Tamar were discarded as a widow, she could not return to her father’s house or live alone except in the shame of being husbandless and childless in an ancient society. There would be no provision or protection for her except destitution and death. Yahweh in his mercy has provided the Levirate marriage for this reason. Imagine his anger when Onan despises God’s laws (Gen. 38:10). Yahweh cannot but execute his justice on Onan’s despicable behavior in order to provide for Tamar.

According to Konig, Israel’s God finds his identity in acting in defense of defenseless human beings.[3] Evidence of Tamar’s righteousness and God’s loving kindness and favor on her is apparent in the special mention of her among the five women in the lineage of Christ. I would therefore dispute Seibert’s claim that God would summarily execute anyone unless they deserved it.]4[

The Case of Nadab and Abihu

The second incident that Seibert mentions is the death of Nadab and Abihu.[5] Nadab and Abihu, sons of Aaron had just been anointed with oil and consecrated as priests in an elaborate ceremony for the service of Yahweh. Moses had made it very clear to them that they were to do all that Yahweh had commanded. Yahweh’s holiness was emphasized clearly in the rituals and sacrifices they were to do for themselves and the people.

It was their priesthood which allowed them into the Holy Place, the closest anyone could come to Yahweh. Only the high priest could go further into the Holy of Holies, and that, only once a year. Nadab and Abihu disobeyed the instructions given by God through Moses and offered unholy fire that he had not commanded before a holy God. Immediately fire comes out from the presence of the LORD and consumes them (Lev. 10:1-2).

Moses says to Aaron, “this is what the LORD meant when he said. . . .”(Lev. 10:3). Apparently, God had already warned them that he would show himself holy and be glorified before his people. Nadab and Abihu had not taken God seriously and violated his command. It is significant that the Bible says that Aaron was silent. Aaron knew his sons had done wrong and according to God’s law deserved to die. Aaron could not defend them. They had been adequately warned that to profane the holy would result in death. God’s justice demanded that he make an example of Nadab and Abihu so that a nation would treat him as holy.

The priesthood was expected to set the example for the Israelites to follow. They were to distinguish between the holy and unholy, the clean and unclean and teach Israel to keep God’s statutes (Lev. 10:10-11). Once the bodies of Nadab and Abihu had been disposed of, Moses warns Aaron not to mourn for the dead by tearing his clothes or messing up his hair. He also reiterates that the priests were not to drink wine or strong drink when they enter the tent of meeting or they would die (Lev. 10:9). This seems an unusual request at such a time that it makes one wonder if perhaps Nadab and Abihu had been drinking and in their drunken state offered unholy fire before the LORD. For these reasons, there is no question in my mind of the just nature of God’s action in this incident.

The Case of Uzzah

Seibert’s third portrait of God as instant executioner is of the story of Uzzah and the ark of the covenant. King David, in his desire to bring the ark to Jerusalem, along with all the people, transports it on a cart. When the oxen shake the cart, Uzzah reaches out and touches the ark to steady it and is instantly killed for his actions.

Seibert complains that David’s sin with Bathsheba was more grievous compared to Uzzah’s, but was not considered by God as punishable by death.[6] Human comprehension of what constitutes greater sin and lesser sin does not correspond with God’s estimates. For Yahweh, preserving his holiness was of utmost importance as seen in the previous incident. The reason the ark was stolen by the Philistines was due to the careless attitude of the Israelites in bringing the ark from Shiloh to the battlefield without God’s instructions (1 Sam. 4:3-4). The Philistines had returned it on a cart led by oxen (1 Sam. 6:8).

However, several times God had given Israel specific instructions on how to transport the ark. It was to be carried by priests on poles that went through the rings on the sides so that no one touched the ark (Ex. 25:10-15; Num. 4:15; 7:7-9; Deut. 10:8). The ark represented the presence of God and his covenant relationship with them. The tablets of the Ten Commandments, which were the sign of their covenant with Yahweh, were kept inside the ark.

The holiness of God was such that anyone who looked on him would die instantly. All these years, the Israelites had carried the ark in the right manner specified by God (Deut. 31:9, 25; Josh. 3:3, 15, 17; 4:9, 10, 18; 6:6; 8:33; 1 Sam. 4:4). This time Israel erred by choosing instead to follow the example of the pagan Philistines. Moreover, Uzzah was not a priest. Naturally, God’s anger was kindled.

To add fuel to the fire, all Israel was watching. God could not allow all Israel to think that obedience to his law was not always necessary. His holiness, reputation, and honor were at stake. The Chronicler also makes it clear that the reason for God’s anger was the improper mode of transportation and profaning that which was holy (1 Chr.15:11-13). Yahweh protects his covenant relationship with Israel. He does not dispense justice without warning and so it was with Uzzah’s death. It was a reminder to Israel and an example for the nation that would not be forgotten or trivialized again.[7]

To be continued.

Vanu Kantayya
MACM Student
Northern Baptist Seminary


[1]. Eric A. Seibert, Disturbing Divine Behavior: Troubling Old Testament Images of God (Minneapolis: Fortress Press, 2009), 18.

[2]. Victor P. Hamilton, The Book of Genesis: Chapters 18-50, The New International Commentary of the Old Testament (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1995), 434.

[3]. John K. Roth and Frederick Sontag, eds., The Defense of God (New York: Paragon House, 1985), 30.

[4]. Seibert, 19.

[5].  Ibid.

[6]. Ibid., 19-20.

[7]. David T. Lamb, God Behaving Badly: Is the God of the Old Testament Angry, Sexist and Racist? (Downers Grove: InterVarsity Press, 2010), 27-33.

Other Posts In This Series:

The God of the Old Testament and the God of the New Testament – Part 1

The God of the Old Testament and the God of the New Testament – Part 2

The God of the Old Testament and the God of the New Testament: Divine Warfare

The Acts of God

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