God & Violence: God's capriciousness in the OT

Hello friends! I know that this isn’t a “science vs faith” question but rather a biblical interpretation one, but I’m just searching for different answers to questions that I am going back through and it’s so hard to find answers that’s not the traditional, mainstream, evangelical answers that I’m already familiar with. Learning about cultural context and looking at Genesis correctly has allowed me to change my view of inspiration and realize that the biblical authors were writing in their own time and space and culture. With that being said, wasup with God killing people in the OT? And not only rendering judgment but the obvious capriciousness of it at times. I’m aware of the traditional answers like God is God, he can do no wrong so if he wants to destroy the world with the flood again, he can do so (which I think is an absurd answer and I’m pretty happy that I don’t have to hold to a literal flood), or the dodgings of the question by highlighting the merciful passages in the OT, etc. I’m thinking of that the biblical authors were writing in their cultural views of how they perceived God (though Yahweh was very different than the other ANE gods) but then how do you reconcile the thought that well, what did God say? Like the prophets for example would say that Yahweh said blah blah blah, but apparently it wasn’t, at least always, that was God’s verbatim speech (or was it?). I know that this is an age old question and is probably the hardest questions that we have to discuss as Christians. So let me put it as it’s been asked for centuries, why does the God of the OT seem so much different than the God of the NT? And when answering, I understand that the “god of the OT” is merciful just as Jesus is merciful so there’s no reason to point that out. Though that’s true, I think that’s still dodging the question. I think that we all find reading the OT uneasy at times.

Thanks family!



I’m sure some people will chime in with their thoughts here, but not having any time at the moment to compose my own, here are some resources I have found helpful over the last decade on these kind of questions:

The God I Don’t Understand by Christopher Wright
Sacred Word, Broken Word by Kenton Sparks
Four views on moving beyond the Bible to theology in the Zondervan Counterpoints series
Four views on the Canaanite conquest in the Zondervan Counterpoint series.


Hey everyone, this is my first post on the Forum!

Kendal, I’ve been having struggles with the same questions lately. Unfortunately, I’ve basically disregarded the old testament as a response. I know it’s not advisable but at times I feel like I am looking at different Gods all together. I look forward to what others with better understanding of history and context have to say. In the mean time, I’ll check out the links Christy posted.


Thanks Christy I’ll check them out. I’ve heard about the first one. I also have Is God A Moral Monster by Paul Copan, I just have to finish reading it lol. The info about the exaggerations of the authors (sort of like our own hyperbole) and the numbers of the combatants lessens the force for sure but it’s still unsettling. I feel that there’s more that I’m not understanding. I was listening to a lecture earlier that stated how the authors gave interpretations of what God told them or restated God’s words in their own cultural expressions. I could see that as well. Going to check out the links though, thanks! Would love to hear your points whenever you have the time!

Hi, Aaron, welcome to the forum!

Very briefly, I have found the following ideas really helpful:

William Webb’s idea of looking at history as a redemptive trajectory so when we read the Bible, we are looking for how God moved people from where they were in their particular culture and place in history to a place closer to God’s ultimate ideal of shalom. The focus is on God’s transformation of people and unveiling of more and more of his character.

Kevin VanHoozer’s idea of the theo-drama and God’s word as a speech act. This is similar in some ways to Webb’s ideas in that it puts the focus on looking at how God acts in human history, instead of trying to boil everything down to propositional truth nuggets.

Kenton Sparks’ idea that Scripture redeems Scripture and the reason that we recoil against some of the things recorded in the OT is actually because our culture and ethics have been shaped by the NT.

All of these ideas are expounded on in much more detail in lots of places, and they are ideas that other authors often cite and interact with.

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Aaron wasup brother! Yes it’s definitely a journey. I’ve had (traditional) answers to this question before such as, no one is truly innocent, God can do whatever he wants, etc, but I’m in a space right now where I’m rethinking through different ideas and questions about my faith and this one I haven’t come to an “aha” moment (if I ever will lol). I’ve listened to Paul Copan’s lectures and Josh Butler lecture. Paul Copan wrote the book “Is God A Moral Monster?”, (I have the book, I just need to finish reading it lol). He has lectures on youtube of the same title. And I believe Josh Butler has written a book, I don’t know the title though. His lecture was really good --> http://bible.realitysf.com/lectures/lecture-on-violence-and-genocide-in-the-old-testament

You’re in good company Aaron!

Thanks, Kendal. I’ve been troubled by this for decades, just not enough to do any thorough investigation. I’ll check out youtubes and the link. I know you were looking for answers, but I’m afraid I don’t have anything to offer you don’t already know!

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I think you are doing the right thing by confronting the difficult material in the Old Testament directly, instead of ignoring it or painting it in pastel shades. The New Testament also has troubling passages (e.g. the ones that led to anti-Semitism).

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I think the root of the answer for explaining the differences between the 2 books is Judaism radically changed under exposure to Persian rule.

Enochian schools of Judaism are the fundamental flags of the change… if not the very carriers for the change as Well!

I finally am coming to grips with this question. It’s a tough realization but I figured it was something like this. After searching online & youtube for answers, none at all sufficed. I actually was very offended by John Piper’s response to the question “Why did God kill women and babies?”. It said the same tired rhetoric as other traditional evangelicals, that “God can kill women and babies and whomever he wants whenever he wants because he’s God”. That answer has never resonated with me. But I came across some wonderful people, especially Peter Enns. He has really helped me in this new journey that I am on. I agree with the conviction that the OT is the ancient Israelite’s interpretation or depiction of God, not necessarily the verbatim words of God or even an accurate picture of God. Though this raises a ton more questions, this makes the most sense to me, especially reading through the OT.


I lean that way too. We were studying Genesis and the question arises why Ham’s son Canaan was cursed, and it makes a lot more sense that this was written later to provide justification for the killing of the Canaanites later on in the story of Israel and the promised land. As you say, it does bring up other questions, however, that are tough to assemble.


God is no different, the circumstances are different.
Looking at the Bible as a whole, we have to see the purpose of the NT vs the OT and see that God never changed, rather the circumstances changed. The OT was about the covenant, and how Israel would save the world through this. If you stood in Israel’s way of saving the world, you would have to to be moved. If you stand in the way of a train, you will die if you don’t move. God’s train was to bring Israel as a nation of priest to mediate between God and the Gentiles. So the Israelite’s need some land to set up a kingdom, a kingdom that allowed anyone to join (if they followed the same covenant). If the Israelite’s were able to live by the law, this could have been done and the world would have been saved through them. God moved the nations opposing them from taking this land that is rightfully theirs, and defended them against nations who attempted to take this land from them.

But in the NT, now the world is saved through Israel (as promised), but the only Israelite that could have defeated the power of sin in the flesh, was Jesus. The ultimate great high priest who is able to mediate between God and man. Once the world was saved (for those who ask of it), there was no more need for a physical nation, nor do we ever need to harm another physical nation. They can’t stand in the way of God, because God’s will has already been completed. “It is finished!”. When those words were spoken, there will never be a need again to move a nation that is standing in the nation of Israel’s way.

Now knowing that God has never changed, just the circumstances. How do we understand some of these circumstances were dealt with?

First I look at the Bible as a whole, and know that God show many examples of His mercy and goodness to man. He gives the Israelite’s multiple chances. He gives Sodom and Gomorrah multiple chances. He causes the rain to fall on the wicked and the righteous.

Though I don’t think God’s words were manipulated later to attempt to justify these battles. Knowingly changing God’s words of old to justify (in your mind) a battle of later sounds very proud, and I don’t see God tolerating that.

Canaan was cursed by an angry, embarrassed, hungover man. I don’t think there was any credence/power to those words. The Canaanites actually flourished and were prosperous for a time. It was there acts of wickedness that caused them to be punished, not this curse.

The best way I can attempt to explain the violence would be by looking at other passages.

Sodom and Gomorrah, He says he won’t destroy if even 10 are found righteous. He can’t find 10, but He even saves the 4 He could find. He attempted to save Lot, his wife, and 2 daughters. Gen 19:15

Gen 15:16 He waited 4 generations, it has not reached its limit yet.

Murder was never ok, this was killing a fellow human for means or rage or vengeance. They were instructed to kill from God, this was not murder. Had they decided to seek vengeance prior to God telling them to do so, they would be killed. Like when they attempt to conquer Jericho after the spies give bad reports and God says, never mind, you will not win, and they go on their own, they all die.

Justifiable war is deemed ok. Abraham waged war to rescue his relative in Gen 14. Self defense basically for your citizens who are being harmed or captured by another tribe is ok to wage war over.

1 Sam 15:2 God says he will punish the Amalekites for what they did to Israel when they ambushed them as they came up from Egypt. This is basically saying, vengeance (which is the Lords). The women and children weren’t those who ambushed them, wasn’t it their ancestors who did this?

When you lived in a kingdom/city, you basically agreed with everything they stood for and thought they would protect you. You had the freedom to leave that city, you weren’t slaves. You knew what your ancestors did. One way to punish a father is to wipe out his family and seed, the nation as a whole.

If the children are going to heaven anyway, would that be a mercy kill? You were brought up in a wicked land, so I am bringing you home to me early, because I have a greater purpose for the Israelites?

God also told Abraham to kill his only son, and when he listened in attempt to do it, God stopped him. Is it possible this was a test too and the infants would have been spared? Though it says Saul killed everything that was despised and weak to contrast the strong sheep and cattle he took. Maybe the infants were spared? It doesn’t say they were destroyed?

V 3 says destroy all that they have. Children were your possession. There is also Egyptians in the Exodus. The specifically had 1 born targeted. This was a blow to the adults, the living adults. It doesn’t seem to do as much to a patent if you kill them, then their children. But if you spare the parent and kill the children, this is harsh. But if you knew a war was coming, would you not send your children away so as not to get caught up? And if you didn’t send your children away, their blood would be on your hands?

This wasn’t tanks sent in. It takes a while for people to walk, especially thousands of them, it isn’t quiet or fast. Then later in Bible passages, it speaks of this same nation (that was supposedly 100% destroyed) rising up again? So it makes one think that perhaps, many did flee before the battle. But if one stayed in the battle, (I assume because moving is a pain, and if you pridefully think you are going to wipe your opponents clean and there is no need to flee) they your, and your children’s blood is on your head.

Which is also shown with Rehab. They are instructed to tie the scarlet so the soldiers pass over their household. If they are not in that household, theirs and their family’s blood is on their own heads.

V 8 “He took Agag king of Amalekites alive, and all his people he totally destroyed with the sword. The kings people were destroyed, sounds like soldiers to me, not civilians.

God values human life, but not so much animals. It was after Saul spared the best animals and killed the weak ones that the next verse says Saul did not carry out My instructions. God has always dealt with the heart rather than actions. The heart of Saul was proud in that He kept he king alive (as surrounding pagan nations did to humiliate) and the best animals (not trusting God will provide the best animals) and it needed to be taken in his own hands.

V15 again, “they spared the best of the sheep and cattle to sacrifice (because they thought sacrifice was an act of animals rather than a heart of obedience) but we totally destroyed the rest. Which again contrast animals. I am not 100% convinced that the infants and children were killed.

Num 31:35 He spared all the virgin women. But all the defiled wicked women and men die. We know the girls lived, I can only assume the boys lived too, but the men that fought were killed.

Daniel 5, the writing on the wall. V18 Your Majesty, the Most High God gave your father Nebuchadnezzar sovereignty and greatness and glory and splendor…V 20 But when his heart became arrogant and hardened with pride, he was deposed from his royal throne and stripped of his glory…V 21 until he acknowledged that the Most High God is sovereign over all kingdoms on earth and sets over them anyone he wishes.

Dan 5: 21 the Most High God is sovereign over all kingdoms on earth and sets over them anyone he wishes.

I also think it is very possible that God gave these cities warnings or writings on the wall. They were told this is God’s land, they refused and were proud and did not admit the King of Kings dominion, and perished for it by means of Israelite’s. Just like Belshazzar and the Babylonians were perished under the Medes and Persians.

God is also one who defends the weak. It isn’t like Isabelle was a huge strong nation who bullied others. The Canaanites sure were though.

Gods wrath is also very pale in comparison to the other rulers of the ANE.

I like the question asked by one of the above links. Does knowing what we know about the OT make us more violent or less violent?

We wage wars to protect our ideals. We bombed many civilians indiscriminately in the past. We wage wars to grow our kingdom and spread our ideals. We wage wars for our gods.

Where the Israelites just wanted the land they took, no more. They protected their land. God told them to wage war for us. They left their country open to be joined, but weren’t concerned on conquering the world and forcing their ideals on anyone.

These are just food for thought or possibilities, though we may never know how or why God did things. We can take heart in His goodness.

Can you tell me some of the passages? I just recently heard my professor said a similar thing about the book of John (I think he said something about the book having a seemingly negative tone when referring to “the Jews”, so I was wondering about it.)

The most well-known example comes from Matthew 27, where Jesus is on trial :

24 When Pilate saw that he was getting nowhere, but that instead an uproar was starting, he took water and washed his hands in front of the crowd. “I am innocent of this man’s blood,” he said. “It is your responsibility!”
25 All the people answered, “His blood is on us and on our children!”

You can read the whole chapter to get the context. Now, of course nobody can make their children responsible for the blood of an innocent person. That would be magic. But Christians in future generations would use this passage to claim that all Jews were cursed for all time. And the Jews were persecuted by Christians for centuries.

Read more here: Who Killed Jesus? by Jon Meacham.


Right! And then the obvious clues like the use of Yahweh, the description of clean/unclean animals in the noah story, etc

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Oh good, a topic that doesn’t require a science degree. :slight_smile: I could be totally off base here, but I thought I’d offer my humble observations from the text that have informed my perspective. First, I’ve noticed that Yahweh, or ‘The God of Israel’ appears to be known by many of the people about to be marked for extermination. Feel free to point out a key passage that I’m missing, but I don’t recall a single instance in which Israel needed to explain who their god was. Its a pretty big inference, but perhaps reasonable that the people of Canaan knew God, and consciously made themselves an enemy of God. They also appear to have an ‘out’ with the illustration of Rahab. Did God HAVE to destroy all of the locals? Perhaps not… Along the same lines, I’ve found the illustration of Abraham bargaining with God as a useful parallel. In much the same way that God told Abraham his plans for destruction of Sodom, God told Israel his plans to destroy the people of Canaan. The key difference here is that Abraham appealed to God’s mercy and saw that mercy extended to Sodom. Conversely, Israel heard God’s plans and went ‘Awesome! We’re down for some looting and pillaging!’

Forgive me if you’ve already come across these thoughts and have already moved on to ‘meat.’ Thought I’d offer them anyway. :slight_smile:



@Kendal and @jpm I’m interested in this perspective, could you explain to me how you feel about the events of David and the events surrounding Canaan using it? I’ve seen some say that the actions of David and the Israelites were pretty politically minded more than anything such as ethics, what do you think? Thank you

Andrew, wasup man! Could you clarify which events you’re referring to? And so when I think of the passages of Yahweh commanding the Israelites to drive out the Canaanites for the land and to kill them, we see it as maybe Israelites writing later telling a story about what happened rather than recording God’s verbatim words or even being completely historical. That’s often how the ancient world told “history”. By telling stories. What we call myths (negative connotation in our culture) is their explanation of things happened; who they are and why they are. I think another indication of the propaganda of the OT is when Lot’s daughters get him drunk and sleep with him and the resulting children are the progenitors of the Moabites & the Ammonites (Israel’s top enemies). So instead of that being maybe historically accurate, it could be that that’s the story Israel told to paint Moab & Ammon in a negative light. And to be clear, this doesn’t mean that the bible is a lie, or that all is lost. It’s just that we interpreted things wrongly and set expectations or thought it was this, when it was that. That’s just a natural part of life’s learning curve. Learning is a journey.

If you want to read more about what JPM was saying about the Canaanites, Pete Enns just wrote and article about it today. You can read it here --> https://peteenns.com/looks-like-canaanites-got-raw-deal/


Thank you very much for that thought-out response, appreciate it! Yeah you basically covered what I’m referring to. I’m new to some of the views here, so I was wondering what some would consider to be an informed opinion on how to weigh what we can take out of the story and how it checks out with history when trying to figure out how to perceive these events. This link is the kind of stuff I’m interested in, awesome, it’s cool to see all these thought out perspectives.

Welcome! No problem. I’m new to my own views! Lol! This is all brand new for me and I’m walking through it, re-asking myself everything I thought I knew. This view, at least to me, begs the question “well in what way is this God’s word [for me or anyone?]”. Or what kind of application can I derive from this. Those are natural questions. I would probably be inclined to say that not everything in the bible is meant to derive application from but that the bible is a story and everything has to be seen in light of the whole. That would have to be a conversation about “innerancy”.

I feel like we’re similar. You should check out more of Pete’s blogs. I’m also reading his book The Sin of Certainty; it’s pretty good. Helps a lot where I’m at right now. ALOT of deconstruction and reconstruction. He also has a podcast that I enjoy called The Bible for Normal People. I also love Tim Mackie and the Bible Project. They have a podcast as well. Let me know if I can be of anymore help!


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