If God is a God of love, why is there so much warfare in the Old Testament?

A guest post by James Allen


The Walls of Jericho Fall Down- Gustave Dore

“We may dislike giving our attention to God’s wrath and justice, but until we incline ourselves to these aspects of God’s nature, we will never appreciate what has been wrought for us by grace.”
-R.C. Sproul (The Holiness of God, 1984)


When we consider our friends, family, and people we know, they are often defined and identified by the actions they make. For example, lets say, my friend always holds a door open for people around him, I can identify him with that action. After spending time with a person we begin to understand their reactions in certain environments and situations. We learn who they are and personality over time. However, if they suddenly behave contrary to who we think they are, we’re shocked. Parents having emotional breakdowns, friends turning against you – we feel betrayed or confused because they’re not acting as we expected them to.

When we consider our ideas and assumptions about the character of God, a similar response can occur. When we experience or read about actions that seems alien to his nature, it can often lead to a loss of faith, a sense of betrayal or nauseating confusion. The Old Testament seems to be so violent in its themes, it can feel like a betrayal of our idea of a God of love, and leaves us questioning his character.

We are therefore left with two conclusions; God is either a bully, or a hypocrite that doesn’t uphold his own moral standard. Or perhaps we don’t understand the situation as well as we think we do. Maybe we need to take a closer look at these particular sections within the Old Testament.

Anyone that has briefly skimmed through the 39 books of the Old Testament will have noticed the violence that is contained within it. As God forges a nation from Abraham to the siege of Jerusalem by King Nebuchadnezzar; war and violence is rampant. Within the narrative of the Israelites entering the promised land one of the most prominent examples of violence is expressed:


 “So the people shouted, and the trumpets were blown. As soon as the people heard the sound of the trumpet, the people shouted a great shout, and the wall fell down flat, so that the people went up into the city, every man straight before him, and they captured the city. Then they devoted all in the city to destruction, both men and women, young and old, oxen, sheep, and donkeys, with the edge of the sword.” – Joshua 6:20-21, ESV
This piece of text, (amongst others) is without a doubt a violent part of the biblical narrative. The Bible acknowledges that it was within God’s will. However, does this actually make God a ‘moral monster’? What’s actually happening in the scenario?


Does the Judeo-Christian God instruct people to seek violence?


The answer to this question can be answered within the differentiation of occasional and general commands. A general command can be found within the ten commandments, for example: “You shall not misuse the name of the LORD your God, for the LORD will not hold anyone guiltless who misuses his name.” (Exodus 20:7). This instruction is interpreted as a general law that is to be observed. Occasional commands are found in the narratives of Abraham and Jonah, as Abraham was commanded to go to Ur, and Jonah to Nineveh. We can see that there is difference between the commands, it would seem ludicrous that every person observing the Judeo-Christian law should emigrate to the modern-day Ur or Nineveh. Commands must be interpreted with practicality and context in grasp. In light of this, God prohibits complete destruction and invasion of surrounding land (Deuteronomy 2:4,9). As well as instructing the Israelites to be actively generous to the low-socioeconomic class and non-Israeli groups, ‘When you reap the harvest of your land, do not reap to the very edges of your field or gather the gleanings of your harvest. Leave them for the poor and for the foreigner residing among you. I am the LORD your God.’ (Leviticus 23:22(NIV)). The differentiation between these two forms of command show that God has general behaviour that he instructs, such as allowing the poor and foreigner to be fed, as well as the occasional such as, seeking for justice for his people as they enter the land promised to them and justice for sin.


Were the Canaanites innocent?


Before the event recorded in the book of Joshua, Genesis provides the account of God, giving legal right to the land of Canaan to Abraham and his descendants (Genesis 17:8). However, God doesn’t give the land to Abraham immediately- by force or peaceful means. Instead God states that the sins of the current inhabitants of the area had not reached their full measure (Genesis 15:16). God tells Abraham that his descendants must wait 400 years before having access to Canaan. Perhaps then, the Canaanites were not completely innocent. Leviticus 18 tells us the Israelites to not conform to the behaviour of the people of Canaan. Conduct such as idolatry, adultery, bestiality, incest and child sacrifice are listed, which to us may be sickening, but to a holy and just God they are detestable. God used the Israelites to promote justice for evil acts within the land of Canaan. As the Canaanites were driven out, so were the idols and horrendous acts that followed them.


Did God Permit Mercy for the Individual?


A few characters that remain in the background of the story that provide more insight into the personhood of God. In the capturing of Jericho, a woman called Rahab is found helping the Israelite spies. She confesses her faith in the God of Israel, acknowledging their right to the land and supports them in the taking of the city. Rahab was convinced that Canaan belonged to the Israelites as she quotes Moses confession (Deuteronomy 4:39) in Joshua 2:11. This suggests that the Canaanites had knowledge of the Israelites and their God before they were killed, which would allow for their escape or conversion. After Rahab’s confession of faith, she is then spared from the destruction of Jericho. Therefore, God allowed for Canaanites to turn to faith in him if they chose to and be spared. Another character within the narrative is Caleb, who is promised an inheritance from the land (Numbers 14:24). Caleb is known for his obedience to God, as well as being a Kenizzite. The Kenizzites were a group of people God commanded Abraham to destroy (Genesis 15:18-20). This would mean that Caleb’s lineage wasn’t purely Israeli, yet he was spared by God on the basis of his faith. These two people within the context of the fall of Jericho, were spared from destruction based on their faith in God. Therefore, God allowed people to be spared the individual on the basis of belief rather than ethnicity or national identity.


Challenges within the text


Although the Canaanites were immoral people in their behaviour God still spared some of them if they chose to turn away from their immorality. The Canaanite people however, continue to appear within the Old Testament narrative such as in Judges. Wait, what? Weren’t the Canaanites wiped out back in Joshua? If they were wiped out why are they appearing again in Judges? When we take a closer look, the language that the Bible predominantly uses in the events concerning war is the term ‘driving out’, ‘thrusting out’ or ‘dispossessing’. The term ‘driven out’ in Hebrew is equivalent to the language used concerning Adam and Eve leaving the Garden of Eden (Genesis 3:24). Adam and Eve were not ‘destroyed’ in our contemporary sense of the term, but driven out by God. This term is also used against the nation of Israel in the context of the Babylonian invasion as God threatens to “vomit” Israel just as the Canaanites had been previously (Leviticus 18:25). Specifically, though, the term “destroy” is also used against Israel (Jeremiah 25:9), yet Israel were not “destroyed” in the sense of genocide but were driven out of their land.

Why then would the authors of the Bible use this language to describe such violent events? What is an accurate way of interpreting these dramatic terms? The answer…hyperbole, or simply put, trash talk. Although the authors of Joshua and Judges were not unintelligent, though they didn’t necessarily write the books with a modern-historical perspective. While the event occurred, the language used to describe the event may not be the same as how we might describe such an event- it’s basically exaggeration. Any major sports fanatic will understand what I mean – it would be normal for me to say Queensland destroyed or demolished NSW in Game 2. These terms, although they indicate the outcome of the event, do not provide us with a historically clear, and objective account of the event. Using this interpretation, we can see that although it is written that the Canaanites were “destroyed” they were not literally murdered.


A New Perspective


So what then do we make of God’s character? Is God’s love and grace exclusive to the New Testament, or does it also appear in the Old Testament? We must remember that within what may appear to be a dark and bleak part of scripture there is also glimmers of God’s love for the individual in the examples of Rahab and Caleb. Within the Old Testament narrative, God is forging an entire nation, teaching them how to be generous and graceful to foreigners and remain away from sin. At the same time however, a just God must handle injustice; but this is what makes his grace so amazing.


Further Resources


In Defence of the Bible, Steven B. Cowan & Terry L. Wilder

Did God really Command Genocide?, Paul Copan & Matthew Flannagan

Is God a Moral Monster?, Paul Copan

What about War in the Old Testament?,  Vince Vitale https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=09vtYuBBO0s

God of Love, God of Judgment, Michael Ramsden https://youtu.be/qUazX6wJPgo

Is God a Moral Monster, Paul Copan https://youtu.be/1C3q3Zr_R8E