In his book Our Savage God, Robert Zaehner speaks of Yahweh, the God of the Old Testament, as a God who “appears in a savage guise.” According to Zaehner (1974: 232), Yahweh is the frenzied God who storms and rages throughout the Old Testament. The savage God is the God who is vengeful, radical and repugnant (1974: 225). The savage God is a God who is cruel and violent, unjust and harsh in his dealings with the Israelites and with people from other nations. The notion of the savagery of God arises when people are unable to reconcile the love of God with a God who is a righteous judge and with God’s demands for righteousness and justice. The God of the Bible is a merciful and loving God, but he is also a God who requires justice from people.
According to some people, the savage God of the Bible is the God who arbitrarily demanded the destruction of entire cities and the killing of men, women, and children. The savage God is the God who allows drought, hurricanes, tornadoes, and other natural disasters to cause havoc to cities and to bring misery to thousands of people. If God is a merciful and loving God, how could this God allow the destruction of innocent people?
The reason people believe that the God of the Bible is a savage God is because God exercises divine justice when people fail to meet divine standards. As the prophet Jeremiah wrote: “I am the LORD who demonstrates unfailing love and who brings justice and righteousness to the earth, and I delight in these things” (Jeremiah 9:24). God delights in justice and justice is what God demands from Israel and all nations.
The reality of divine justice does not mean that there is a standard of justice for Israel and one for the rest of the world. On the contrary, there is a single standard of justice for all. God’s judgment falls not only upon Israel but also upon other nations when they fail to meet the moral standard set by God. In order to dispense justice, God intervenes in human history to redress injustice and restore the moral order of society.
When one considers the theme of justice in the Hebrew Bible, one encounters a different perspective from that which appears in the popular understanding of justice. Justice means a restoration of normalcy in society, a return to a condition where human rights are recognized.
One good example of divine justice at work is found in the book of the prophet Amos. Amos proclaimed that since God was the sovereign Lord over all nations, his demand for justice was universal and that it applied to all. To Amos, God was not only the guarantor of Israelite laws, but also of the entire moral order. God’s universal requirements applied to Israel and included the conventional norms of international behavior. Amos saw God’s universal requirements as justice, and his judgment as a punishment for injustice against members of the community.
God’s universal requirements demand right conduct of individuals and nations. God’s righteousness is manifested not only in the judgments which he brings to individuals and nations, but also in his acts of mercy and salvation toward Israel and, eventually, towards all peoples.
In Amos’ oracles against the foreign nations, we see divine justice at work.
In Amos 1:3, God spoke through Amos and said:
“The people of Damascus have sinned again and again, and I will not let them go unpunished! They beat down my people in Gilead as grain is threshed with iron sledges.”
The principal transgression of the Aramean kingdom was the threshing of the people in Gilead with iron threshing-machines. When the Arameans conquered Israel, they crushed the prisoners to pieces with iron threshing-machines. This act of cruelty against the people of Gilead reflects a barbarous war-practice that was prevalent in the ancient Near East.
Since no one could bring Ben-Hadad to justice, God intervened and caused the invasion of Damascus by the Assyrians and the deportation of the Arameans to Kir (Amos 1:5; 2 Kings 16:9).
In Amos 1:6, God spoke through Amos and said:
“The people of Gaza have sinned again and again, and I will not let them go unpunished! They sent whole villages into exile, selling them as slaves to Edom.”
The captives of war mentioned here were sold as slaves by the Philistines to the Edomites, the arch-enemies of Israel. According to Amos, the captivity was so devastating that not a single captive remained. Entire villages were taken away and none of them ever returned to their land.
Since there was no way the people taken as slaves could obtain redress in a court of law, God intervened and the Philistines were threatened with divine retribution for having plundered the land and sold the captives as slaves. To vindicate the oppressed slaves, God promised that the king of Ashdod would be destroyed (Amos 1:8). The divine judgment came by the hands of Sargon, king of Assyria, and his army after Assyria conquered Ashdod (Isaiah 20:1).
In Amos 1:9, God spoke through Amos and said:
“The people of Tyre have sinned again and again, and I will not let them go unpunished! They broke their treaty of brotherhood with Israel, selling whole villages as slaves to Edom.”
The people of Tyre are charged with selling people to Edom, but not by having conquered them. This implies that Tyre bought war prisoners from an enemy of Israel, and then sold them as slaves to Edom.
Tyre was a nation known by its trade and commerce, thus, it is possible that Tyre carried out an extensive slave business and that they probably purchased prisoners from different nations and sold them as slaves to more nations than just Edom.
Slaves have no one to fight for them and vindicate their cause. So, God intervened and promised that the fortresses of Tyre would be destroyed. The prophet Isaiah announced the destruction of Tyre: “This message came to me concerning Tyre: Weep, O ships of Tarshish, for the harbor and houses of Tyre are gone! The rumors you heard in Cyprus are all true” (Isaiah 23:1). Whether the destruction was caused by the Assyrians or the Babylonians, Isaiah was clear on who brought the demise of Tyre:
“Who has brought this disaster on Tyre, that great creator of kingdoms? Her traders were all princes, her merchants were nobles. The LORD of Heaven’s Armies has done it to destroy your pride and bring low all earth’s nobility” (Isaiah 23:8-9).
In Amos 1:13, God spoke through Amos and said:
“The people of Ammon have sinned again and again, and I will not let them go unpunished! When they attacked Gilead to extend their borders, they ripped open pregnant women with their swords.”
The ripping up of the women with child was one of the many atrocities that came as a result of the many wars in the ancient Near East (see 2 Kings 8:12; 15:16). This cruel act was practiced by the Arameans, the Assyrians, the Ammonites, and even by an Israelite king. The Ammonites are singled out by Amos for the cruelty which they inflicted upon the Israelites during a time of war.
Since the victims were powerless to defend themselves and bring justice to their cause, God intervened and as a punishment for this cruel act, the Ammonite capital was to be burned, and the king and his officials would go into exile (Jeremiah 27:1-6).
In Amos 2:1, God spoke through Amos and said:
“The people of Moab have sinned again and again, and I will not let them go unpunished! They desecrated the bones of Edom’s king, burning them to ashes.”
According to Amos, the people of Moab opened the grave of one of the kings of Edom and burned his bones. The king’s bones were burned so completely that the bones turned into ashes. This desecration of the dead king was unacceptable to God. Since the dead king was unable to defend himself, God intervened and promised to bring judgment upon Moab by the hands of Nebuchadnezzar, king of Babylon.
These examples show that the God of the Bible is not a savage God. He is a God of justice who vindicates the oppressed and who acts as the sovereign judge to bring justice to people and nations on behalf of victims of violence and brutality. God acts on behalf of nations other than Israel to bring justice upon evildoers.
Thus, divine justice is the process by which God renders redress on behalf of those who are unable to act on their own behalf. Since God in his nature is righteous, God imposes righteous laws on his creatures and executes them righteously. Justice is not an optional product of his will, but an unchangeable principle of his very nature. As Creator, God requires his creatures to conform to his moral laws. When they fail to do so, God acts and justice is upheld.
What people believe to be divine savagery, it is nothing but God’s dealing with his accountable creatures according to the requirements of his laws.
Emeritus Professor of Old Testament
Northern Baptist Seminary
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Zaehner, Robert C. Our Savage God. London, Collins, 1974.