Christianity 201

February 13, 2016

The ‘Gratuitous Violence’ of the Old Testament

Judges 4:21 NIV But Jael, Heber’s wife, picked up a tent peg and a hammer and went quietly to him while he lay fast asleep, exhausted. She drove the peg through his temple into the ground, and he died.

Click here to read all of chapter four.

Peter Enns is a renown theologian, Biblical scholar, author and teacher at Eastern College. This is his 4th time here at C201, and his style seemed like just the right thing for a weekend study/devotional. For some of you today’s subject may raise more questions than provide answers. You may disagree with one of his conclusions, but I do believe that Peter has great respect for the text. Click the title below, not only to read the post, but see an image based on the verse cited above!

“people are just dying all over the place”—reading the Old Testament historical books

This semester [I’m] teaching a course on the Old Testament “historical books”—Joshua, Judges, 1 and 2 Samuel, 1 and 2 Kings, Ezra, and Nehemiah. (I cover Chronicles as part of my Biblical Hermeneutics class under “midrash.”)

As I always do for my biblical canon courses, I read through that portion of the Bible during break. And as I’m revisiting these stories, I’ve found myself thinking, “Please, Lord, let these be greatly exaggerated if not largely manufactured stories.”

With hardly a break, I am struck (pun intended) by how casual and heartless the ancient Israelites were about violence and vengeance. The ancient Israelites, by and large, were plain old nasty, mean, and not the kind of people you’d want to cross—or even playfully tease.

. . . Or better: the Israelites we meet in the Old Testament were that way.

Frankly, I have no idea what “ancient Israelites” were actually like—those tending the sheep, growing their grain, telling stories to their children, hiding from invaders. We don’t really know anything about them. We just know of a precious few, and we only know them through what anonymous writers said about them probably many centuries later.

How fair were these writers? Were they even trying? What ax were they grinding? What was their deal?

At any rate, regardless of how they got there, the people we meet in these stories have issues, and you can’t help but wonder what the point of all this is in a holy book. If I were writing the Bible, I’d throw in some more positive stuff—like not glorying in impaling or beheading your enemies or people who want to take your stuff.

Or at least have God step in now and then and say, “Hey, will you people cut. it. out?! Enough of this already! If you only knew the shelf life these stories will get and how people are going to use them. . . . ”

But God seems OK with it. At least that’s what the writers have written.

Yes, reading the stories from conquest to exile can be an eye-opening experience, not for the faint of heart, and probably not without someone to talk it through with. Sometimes I wish the Bible came with a toll-free customer service number. (And no, that’s not what prayer is. Sheesh.)

Even leaving aside the whole conquest of Canaan (aka extermination of Canaanites and any other living thing), people are dropping like flies. It seems like major death is the end result of nearly every story you read. People are just gonna die. Brace yourself. And often those killings are portrayed as good, just, honorable, and normal—like, “What’s your problem? This is just what happens, you know?”

I started going through these books and listing the violence and general vindictive nastiness, but then stopped. I have a busy schedule. Plus it’s getting discouraging.

All of this reminds me of a couple of things I tend to harp on, and I think for good reason.

  1. Knowing something of when and why these stories were written might help us understand something of what the writers are trying to say. Discerning all this isn’t straightforward by any means, but I think it’s worth the effort.
  2. And after you’re done with all that, we readers of the Bible still have to decide what WE  are going to do with all of it, how we are going to process it for our life of faith here and now. And that’s not easy either.

In The Bible Tells Me So, I basically come down on these two things as follows:

  1. I think at that these stories were written in a tribalistic context, and thus reflect that context—this is how stories of gods and nations were told.  Further, the writers exaggerated and/or freely shaped the past for theological and/or propagandistic purposes.
  2. I do not think these stories should be read theologically uncritically, meaning simply accepted as prescribing what God is like. The Bible isn’t a rule book or owner’s manual, and we don’t get off the hook so easily. What God is like transcends the stories written about him.

I’ve said a mouthful here, I know. Agree or disagree, but my thinking comes from reading the Bible respectfully and carefully, not from an antagonistic or dismissive point of view.

The Bible—as it always has—raises plenty of questions on its own. And when we engage those questions, we are joining a long and honored conversation.


  1. It is difficult to rationalize or to accept what today we would classify as “barbaric acts” the practices of Israel throughout its history. However, it must never be forgotten that the LORD was working through that nation to develop a people who would be committed to Him with all of their minds, hearts, souls and strength. His Name was to be honoured through them, and in a very evil world. They could never grasp this. It should not be accepted that the actions of God in the life of the Israelites was in any way arbitrary.

    The tension that existed, and still exists, is between the holiness of God and the evil of man. Although the LORD was very harsh with Israel and through Israel at times, it was because of their constant rebellion, defiance, and unholy practices and the practices of the nations. In this tension modern day believers have inserted THEIR definition of “love” and consider the practices of the Israelites and God’s responses according to their understandings. The contrast between love (as depicted today) clashes with our sensibilities of what took place then. (The term “unconditional love” has for the most part replaced “holiness” as the attribute that most represents God, and this colours one’s interpretation of the practices of the early Jews. God’s love never has been, and never will be, without condition. If this was so salvation would be universal and a holy kingdom would never be established.)

    All disobedience and all of those who are unholy will never enjoy God’s eternal presence. This being the case, many had to be, and many more will have to be destroyed. If the history of the Jews is looked at from the perspective of a sovereign God creating a state of holiness in the world, the practices that occurred seem more essential and less barbaric in the grand scheme of things…the accomplishment of His holy Kingdom.

    The question then becomes, if God is holy, how could He respond in such a way? It is BECAUSE He is holy that He had to. He could not convince Israel to be obedient through His prophets, He could not convince them to be holy through promises, nor could He teach them to be holy through the expression of His love.

    The LORD did not want Israel to behave as they did. “I will show the holiness of my great name, which has been profaned among the nations, the name you [Israel] have profaned among them. Then the nations will know that I am the LORD, declares the Sovereign LORD, when I show myself holy through you before their eyes.” (Ezekiel 36:23) He had allowed mankind to live in accordance to their hearts in order to show them that they needed Christ, even as He tried to get them to submit willfully to His sovereignty. The history of Israel should give us all cause to think about the extent to which God values holiness and His great name.

    ‘Time’ needs to be appreciated as well, when considering this era of world history. The few thousand years of Israel’s history may seem like a long time for this barbarism to have been practiced but compared to eternity it is very short and man has not proven himself to be very proficient at learning spiritual lessons. In the end, God will give Israel a new heart and put a new spirit in them. He has demonstrated that His intervention and transformation of the heart is the ONLY way to establish His kingdom in the manner in which He would have it. He has said to Israel: “then [after having been given a new heart] you will remember your evil ways and wicked deeds and you will loath yourselves for your sins and your practices. I want you to know that I am NOT doing this for your sake, declares the sovereign LORD. Be ashamed and disgraced for your conduct, O house of Israel.” (Ezekiel 36:31-32, NIV)

    The display of wicked behavior that is so challenging to our minds was to reveal to mankind how wicked and constant the “evil imaginations of men’s hearts” (Genesis 6:5) really are and to get man to ‘willingly’ accept a better hope. The evil of Israel’s history still exists today but in most cases is more subtle excepting the obvious terrorist assaults. Is God’s response any less harsh? You decide!

    I am not sure that the history of Israel should be readily dismissed as a depiction of what God is like other than the extent to which He demands the honouring of His sovereignty and the measure of His holiness. His sovereignty and His holiness had to be and must be sustained. He has gone to great lengths in the building of an eternal kingdom that fits His purpose, and the nature of that kingdom needs to be appreciated. The Israelites and surrounding nations felt the expression of God’s wrath. Many more will experience it in the future.

    Today teachings of “hell” as no less barbaric to many with the pronouncement of “eternal torment” given as its reality. The only way that His plan can be completed is with the preservation of those who have submitted to His rule and the destruction of those who won’t.

    Comment by Russell Young — February 17, 2016 @ 9:10 am | Reply

    • Interestingly enough, this week’s Phil Vischer Podcast was devoted entirely to this topic. Dr. John Walton of Wheaton College explained what it means to “drive them out” and showed that sometimes we overplay the violence through not reading the text correctly. How could the Israelites kill all the [name of tribe] but then be back fighting them a year later? There was also an interesting analogy driving out other tribes and sterilizing a room for surgery. There’s a lot of banter on Phil’s podcasts, but if you’re willing to wade through it, here’s the link:

      But Walton isn’t saying no one was killed, and not trying to soften the violence.

      Comment by paulthinkingoutloud — February 17, 2016 @ 10:07 am | Reply

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