The manuscript for my book Divine Violence and the Character of God has been accepted for publication. The book will be published probably next January. The research, the writing, and the editing of the manuscript took more than one year of my time. This is the reason I have not published my blog as often as before.
There is much violence in the Old Testament, both human and divine. Christians and non-Christians react differently to what they read about the God of the Old Testament. Some people are so affected by the violence found in the Old Testament that they give up on God, stop going to church and reading the Bible, and eventually lose their faith.
Others are offended by divine violence and seek to find an alternative explanation for the violent acts of God in the Old Testament. A popular alternative in the twenty-first century is to return to the second century and adopt some form of Marcionism and make the God of the Old Testament to be a different God from the God revealed by Christ in the New Testament.
According to the Wikipedia, “Marcion preached that the benevolent God of the Gospel who sent Jesus Christ into the world as the savior was the true Supreme Being, different from and opposed to the malevolent demiurge or creator god, identified with the Hebrew God of the Old Testament.”
The pacification of the God of the Old Testament is the approach taken by writers such as C. S. Cowles, Eric A. Seibert, and Gregory A. Boyd. In my book I address many of the issues raised by these authors and seek to present what the Old Testament teaches about the true nature and character of God.
I believe the writers mentioned above misunderstand the character of the God of the Old Testament. For instance, Boyd’s view of the God of the Old Testament is very negative. This is what Boyd says about Yahweh, the God of the Old Testament: “On the cross, Jesus exposed this sinful god-in-our-own-image to be the blasphemous lie that it is. On the cross, the diabolic violent warrior god we have all-too frequently pledged allegiance to has been forever repudiated and brought to nothing’” (Boyd 2017: 1261). The God Boyd is describing is not the God who calls himself “God merciful and gracious.”
Most of the violence in the Old Testament is associated with the atrocities of war. All three writers have problems with the fact that Yahweh is identified as a man of war, “Yahweh is a man of war; Yahweh is his name.” (Exodus 15:3). Most English translations avoid using the “man of war” expression and instead use the word “warrior.” “Yahweh is a warrior; Yahweh is his name” (Exodus 15:3 NJB).
One problem in understanding divine violence in the Old Testament is the issue of causation. In Isaiah 45:7 Yahweh says, “I make peace, and create evil: I the LORD do all these things” (Isaiah 45:7 KJV). This statement is highly misunderstood. “Marcion assumed that the prophet was making YHWH ‘creator of evil’ (cf. KJV), but Tertullian already recognized that he had missed the point” (Goldingay: 2006:79).
The phenomenon of God acting in the world must be understood within the scope of human freedom and human initiative, that is, many things people do within the sphere of human freedom, at times, these actions are attributed to God. Take, for instance the events related to the fall of Jerusalem.
In 2 Kings 24:2 we read what happened from the perspective of the biblical writer: “The LORD sent against him bands of the Chaldeans, bands of the Arameans, bands of the Moabites, and bands of the Ammonites; he sent them against Judah to destroy it.” From the perspective of the biblical writer, Yahweh sent a group of mercenaries from different nations against Judah “to destroy it.”
However, according to the Babylonian Chronicles, it was Nebuchadnezzar who sent these mercenaries to fight against Judah because he was unable to send his own army. This invasion of Judah by these groups of mercenaries occurred after Jehoiakim withheld tribute from Babylon and made an alliance with Egypt to fight against Babylon (Hyatt 1956: 281). Konkel (2006: 655) provides a good explanation of what happened:
Nebuchadnezzar marches to Egypt in his fourth year but fails to gain a victory. Neco followed up his victory by invading the southern coast and taking Gaza (cf. Jer. 47:1 ). This is the time of Jehoiakim’s rebellion against Babylon (2 Kings 24:1). Jehoiakim is caught in the power struggle; Nebuchadnezzar stays in Babylon rebuilding his army in his fifth year, which gives Neco the opportunity to rebuild his position in encouraging a coalition against Babylonia.
In his sixth year Nebuchadnezzar again goes west (599 B.C. ), his engagements including an attack against the Arabs in the desert (Jer. 49:28–33). The main entry for his seventh year is the capture of Jerusalem. Nebuchadnezzar also uses detachments from Aram, Ammon, and Moab in the attack against Jerusalem (2 Kings 24:2).
Thus, what the biblical writer, writing several years after the fall of Jerusalem, attributes to Yahweh was in reality a decision made by Nebuchadnezzar in his effort to punish Jehoiakim and capture Jerusalem. From the perspective of the biblical writer, the attack by the mercenaries was part of Yahweh’s judgment of Jerusalem.
Invading armies generally have no mercy on conquered people. The violence, the brutality, the atrocities that the Assyrians and the Babylonians inflicted on the people of Samaria and Jerusalem were the results of prolonged siege and the implementation of a policy of total conquest.
What Jesus predicted about the siege of Jerusalem by the Romans (Luke 21) also happened when the Babylonians besieged Jerusalem in the days of Zedekiah (2 Kings 25). Jesus mentioned wars (Luke 21:9) and a nation arising against another nation (Luke 21:10). Jesus said that Jerusalem would be surrounded by an army (Luke 21:20) and he said that those days “are the days of punishment” (Luke 21:22). Jesus warned of diseases and he said that men and women “will be without food” (Luke 21:11). He also warned that it “will be hard for women who are with child, and for her with a baby at the breast” (Luke 21:23). Jesus said that the land will suffer very hard times, and its people will be punished. Jesus also said that swords will cut them down, and they will be carried off into all nations as prisoners and that Jerusalem will be trampled (Luke 21:23–24).
Similar things happened when the Assyrians besieged Samaria and when the Babylonians besieged Jerusalem. The Babylonians conquered Jerusalem in 587 B.C. The Babylonians were a cruel and violent people. They were notorious for their cruelty. They did to the defeated people whatever they liked. They made their own rules of engagement and decided for themselves what to do with the conquered cities (see Habakkuk 1:6–8).
Boyd accuses the God of the Old Testament of bringing judgment on his people (Boyd 2017:28). Jesus said that the siege of Jerusalem by the Romans “are the days of punishment” (Luke 21:22). The siege of Jerusalem in the days of Zedekiah lasted several months. The siege began in the tenth month, on the tenth day of the month, in the ninth year of Zedekiah’s reign, and lasted until the ninth day of the fourth month of the eleventh year of Zedekiah. The famine became so severe in the city that there was no food for the people of the land (2 Kings 25:1–3). Jesus said that in time of war men and women “will be without food” (Luke 21:11). Boyd accuses Yahweh of inciting “parents to cannibalize their own children” (Boyd 2017:28). However, there is archaeological evidence that parental cannibalism happened in the ancient Near East during protracted sieges.
Boyd accuses God of “causing fetuses to be ripped out of their mothers’ wombs” (Boyd 2017:31). Jesus warned that it would be hard for “women who are with child” (Luke 21:23). Although the Romans did not remove fetuses from their mothers’ wombs, the Assyrians did. In my book I mention one occasion where an Assyrian monument depicts the cruel act of Assyrian soldiers removing a fetus from a pregnant woman. And God did not cause that to happen. Neither did God cause Menahem to imitate their Assyrian overlords. Menahem ripped open all the pregnant women who lived in Tiphsah (2 Kings 15:16).
My book is not a defense of God and his use of violence. My intent is not to defend God but to see how and why God acted the way he did and to understand the reason for divine violence in the Old Testament. Yahweh did use violence in his work of reconciliation. However, the use of violence was necessary when everything else failed. Israel provoked God to anger but they did so to their own harm (Jeremiah 25:6–7). When God brought judgment upon his people, he did so with tears in his eyes. When God had to punish nations, he lamented their suffering and suffered with them.
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Emeritus Professor of Old Testament
Northern Baptist Seminary
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Goldingay, John. Old Testament Theology: Israel’s Faith. Downers Grove: IVP Academic, 2006.
Hyatt, J. P. “New Light on Nebuchadnezzar and Judean History.” Journal of Biblical Literature 75 (1956): 277-284.
Konkel, August H. 1 & 2 Kings. The NIV Application Commentary. Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 2006.