For my home group women’s summer Bible study we spent part of the time in 1 Samuel. The girls in my group mostly grew up in church and saw these stories acted out on felt boards and whatnot, but I only had a very vague knowledge of these events (mostly coming from watching “Veggie Tales” while babysitting in high school – ha!) so it was especially interesting for me. But as I was studying at home, I turned to my husband with a myriad of questions about things I couldn’t wrap my mind around, the most poignant being when in the middle of studying I shouted, “Why is the Old Testament so violent?!”
This happened when I was reading about how Saul and his men completely wiped out an Amalekite tribe in 1 Samuel 15. He was specifically commanded to destroy everyone and everything they had. Then in verse 9 we see he didn’t totally follow those directions, and the rest of the chapter condemns Saul for his partial obedience (which is still considered disobedience), among other heart issues Saul had. In my mind this whole scenario wasn’t fair – God goes and wipes out a whole tribe, and then doesn’t give Saul even half credit for his half-obedience. Where is the “slow to anger, rich in love” David speaks of in the Psalm 145 (the same David who also commits quite a bit of violence himself)?
My husband helped me understand that the way the world worked in the Old Testament was very different from today because there had not been any atonement for sin yet. Don’t read me wrong here – I’m not saying God was any different, but that the way He allowed justification for sin to play out changed with the life, death, and resurrection of Jesus. The sacrificial system was incomplete while awaiting the Messiah, and until He came and died and paid for sin death reigned as an earthly judgment for dishonoring God. One of the basic principles of Christianity is that there has to be some kind of payment for sin, some consequence for rejecting the God who made you rather than giving Him the honor He deserves. If you can’t get past that hurdle, then you don’t yet have a clear understanding of the gravity of sin (that topic would require a whole other post).
Even before I was a believer, since I grew up in the “Bible Belt” I was familiar with the verse that begins with, “For the wages of sin in death” (Romans 6:23). You see a lot of death in the Old Testament; in this instance, the Amalekites were being wiped out because they were a pagan tribe and God knew in their hearts that they had all, then and forever, rejected Him. So He used the Israelites to pronounce judgment on them for the sin of rejecting Him. That sort of thing happens all over the Old Testament.
However, the other half of that verse is, “but the free gift of God is eternal life in Christ Jesus our Lord.“ When Jesus came, He changed how payment for sin worked out. He was the ultimate, final payment for sin. He broke the old sacrificial system when He, being the perfect sacrifice, took the death we all deserved for rejecting God and paid it once and for all. No more tribes getting wiped out. No more temporary sacrifices. Jesus’ death paid for all of it, past, present, and future. When God requires blood for our sin He sees that Jesus has already covered that for those who believe in Him. Again, this is one of the basic principles of our faith – that Jesus’ death pays for our sin, and we can do nothing to add to that because it is complete in Him.
Another thing Jesus changed was people enacting judgment on each other in God’s name the way Israel was able to before Christ. In Matthew 5:38-48, Jesus teaches to no longer follow “an eye for an eye” (a direct quote from The Torah, found in Deut. 19:20-21) but to turn the other cheek, and in John 8:3-11, when Pharisees bring before Jesus a woman caught in adultery, He basically says that none of them are righteous enough to judge her. In both verses Jesus is pointing out that it is no longer the Law, but only He who can either free or condemn, extend grace or extend judgment. The Law exists only to show how even the “best” of use are condemned under the Law, and only Jesus can free us from that. We do need to hold ourselves and other believers accountable, and we do need to fight injustice, but we do not enact any final judgment – only God does that.
It is important to understand the Old Testament and not just the New because they are very much intertwined in how they point to Jesus for salvation and how they show God’s character. It is also important to remember to read the Bible in light of the whole Bible; otherwise things get easily taken out of context and we begin to think that some of the other violent things (incest, rape, murder etc.) that occur in the Old Testament even at the hands of God’s people are somehow condoned when the rest of the Bible would show that they are not.
At face value, the Old Testament can be overwhelming in its violence. But when you see those events in light of how God has revealed Himself in the entire Bible, they convey the seriousness of sin juxtaposed with the immense grace and mercy we receive through Christ. The violence caused by sin was and is being killed by Christ’s work on the cross, an act of both violence and peace – violence to sin and peace to those who believe.