Today we are continuing our conversation with friend and guest blogger, Dr. Brad Cole (click here for BIO info). This is the second and final part of his essay on making sense of the “Gentle Jesus” we read about in the New Testament and the disturbing violence we find in the Old Testament. I think you’ll find his thoughts very helpful.
Recap: In the first post (which you should go back and read HERE if you haven’t already), Brad established:
1) Jesus IS the God of the Old Testament
2) God makes concessions to meet us where we are
And if you remember, the first post ended with God saying that though the Israelites involved themselves in things that were not God’s ideal that he would not abandon them but meet them where they were and give them “laws that are not good and commands that do not bring life” (Ezekiel 20:25) as a concession to their hard hearts.
So, today we pick up on these “laws that are not good” and the context for why God had to give them to his people.
3. The context for the “bad rules” to fight
There are many more examples of this foundational principle of God giving in to something less than the ideal, but now let’s specifically tackle the problem of fighting and wars in Old Testament times. I believe that we can say that God never wanted them to fight in the first place, but we can only take this position by understanding the context for these violent times.
It is quite remarkable to consider the violent lives, even of God’s friends in the Old Testament. Just to list a few examples! When Jacob’s daughter Dinah was raped, the men of this city were tricked by Simeon and Levi into getting circumcised.
“Three days later, when the men were still sore from their circumcision, two of Jacob’s sons, Simeon and Levi, the brothers of Dinah, took their swords, went into the city without arousing suspicion, and killed all the men…”
This was Levi, the father of the Levites!
Just a few verses later we read this about Reuben,
“While Jacob was living in that land, Reuben had sexual intercourse with Bilhah, one of his father’s concubines; Jacob heard about it and was furious.”
Of course, these older brothers would then throw Joseph in a pit.
Judah later married a Canaanite woman and sometime later saw someone who he thought was a prostitute.
“When Judah saw her, he thought that she was a prostitute, because she had her face covered. He went over to her at the side of the road and said, ‘All right, how much do you charge?’ (He did not know that she was his daughter-in-law.)…About three months later someone told Judah, ‘Your daughter-in-law Tamar has been acting like a whore, and now she is pregnant.’ Judah ordered, ‘Take her out and burn her to death.’”
It seems unthinkable that Jesus Christ descended from Judah and Tamar.
As the children of Israel traveled to Mount Sinai there was continual rebellion and mutiny against the authority of Moses. As evidence of the spiritual depravity, God had to tell them,
“Do not have sexual intercourse with any of your relatives. Do not disgrace your father by having intercourse with your mother. You must not disgrace your own mother…No man or woman is to have sexual relations with an animal; that perversion makes you ritually unclean.”
(Leviticus 18:7, 23)
Would God give rules like this if they were not needed, and if those kinds of rules were needed, what does that say about the people that were supposed to represent God to the world?
These people were deeply attracted to a form of worship that I hope would make all of us recoil in horror. To make this “real” lets imagine that the church next door to the one you attend is representative of the religions of the nations who occupied the Promised Land. What do we know about those religions? They were remarkably cruel – the church experience involved child sacrifice and meeting with temple prostitutes. What is especially sad is that the children of Israel were continually drawn to and tempted by this violent form of worship. Just consider for a moment that when you got up for church next week that you had a hard time deciding, “Hmmm…shall I go sacrifice my child to the god Molech and then meet with a temple prostitute, or should I go to my regular church? Tough call!” That would not say very good things about you but it does tell us where God’s people were at this time. It’s unthinkable that even king Solomon fell into this trap and began to worship the cruel pagan gods.
If you have ever had a chance to quickly read through the account of the serious rebellion of the wilderness wanderings, it is a terrible story of distrust of God and continued mutiny against Moses. Even when they entered the Promised Land they were still a rebellious people and in Joshua’s final sermon he had to tell them,
“Get rid of the gods which your ancestors used to worship in Mesopotamia and in Egypt, and serve only the LORD.”
Then Joshua died and . . .
“That whole generation also died, and the next generation forgot the LORD and what he had done for Israel.”
What follows then is the book of Judges, one of the most violent and depressing books in the entire Bible! The people
“…settled down among the Canaanites, the Hittites, the Amorites, the Perizzites, the Hivites, and the Jebusites. They intermarried with them and worshiped their gods.”
Every once in a while they would turn to God and he would help them fight against their enemies, but they would soon return to worship the other gods once again. The book of Judges culminates with the story of the Levite and his concubine. This poor woman was raped all night by a mob in a Benjamite city. This heartless Levite then cut her body up into 12 pieces and had them delivered to the 12 tribes of Israel.
Even the brightest moments in the Old Testament, such as the life of David, are mixed in with cruelty and violence. David, of course, had an affair with Bathsheba and then plotted to have her husband murdered, and on and on and on. It is literally too depressing to continue with this violent history and we aren’t even to horrible events of the splitting of the kingdoms, Jezebel, and King Manasseh who killed so many people that the streets flowed with blood, and so on.
The point of all this is to say that this is the setting, the context, and the people that God is trying to work with. In the Old Testament, God is reaching out to stubborn mules and to do that he must interact with his people in ways that only a stubborn mule could understand.
“The people of Israel are as stubborn as mules. How can I feed them like lambs in a meadow?”
4. God did not want them to fight
Just as we have seen God “give in” to divorce laws, the monarchy, polygamy, and countless other examples in order to maintain contact with a rebellious people, the Bible also describes God as giving in to the violence and fighting. But this was never God’s plan! God’s dilemma was that he knew intermingling with the other nations who were involved in the worship of the cruel gods who demanded child sacrifice would be fatal. Coexistence was not an option:
“Do not worship their gods, for that would be fatal.”
“Make sure that you don’t follow their religious practices, because that would be fatal. Don’t try to find out how they worship their gods, so that you can worship in the same way. Do not worship the LORD your God in the way they worship their gods, for in the worship of their gods they do all the disgusting things that the LORD hates. They even sacrifice their children in the fires on their altars.”
God’s warning was clear: “They will be your enemies, and you will be trapped by the worship of their gods.” (Judges 2:3)
They had to stay away from these people and their gods, but yet God’s plan was not to have them fight and kill. Many times God suggested another way:
“Don’t be afraid of them, for the LORD your God will fight for you”
“I will send an angel ahead of you to protect you as you travel and to bring you to the place which I have prepared…For my angel will go before you, and bring you in to the Amorites, the Hittites, the Perizzites, the Canaanites, the Hivites, and the Jebusites, and I will cut them off”
The LORD your God will send hornets among them, until those who are left and hide themselves from you are destroyed. You shall not be in dread of them; for the LORD your God is in the midst of you, a great and terrible God. The LORD your God will clear away these nations before you little by little…the LORD your God will give them over to you, and throw them into great confusion, until they are destroyed”
But sadly the people did not trust God to take care of them and to bring them into the Promised Land in the way he wanted to do it. And so it would appear that God (once again as a concession to the hard-hearts of humanity) helped them fight, despite the repeated message that he really did not want them to fight at all.
God’s people did not trust him to take care of the problem. God could have left them, “I told you that I would take care of you, but since you don’t trust me to do it, you’re on your own!” Remarkably though, God did not abandon his children but rather condescended to help them fight. But even as he did this, he tried to teach them that instead of fighting what they really should do is to begin to put their trust in him.
For example, the first city they conquered was Jericho where the walls miraculously collapsed with a mere shout and some trumpets. Should not the people have realized, “You know what, it seems like it’s much more important that we stay connected to God than it is for us to have a large army?” There are countless examples of this. Gideon and his 300 men threw an army of Midianites that the Bible describes as so large they were like the sand on the seashore into a panic with nothing more than torches and God would many times summarize their conquests this way:
“As you advanced, I threw them into panic…Your swords and bows had nothing to do with it.”
In every way possible God tried to lead the people away from fighting. When Joshua would conquer a people
“…he crippled their horses and burned their chariots.”
This is cruel, but God was trying to tell the people in the only language they could understand, “Please, don’t have a large military and if you would just put your trust in me, you won’t be doing any of this fighting in the first place!”
Even when David killed Goliath, we miss these words of David as he charged at the giant:
“You are coming against me with sword, spear, and javelin, but I come against you in the name of the LORD Almighty, the God of the Israelite armies, which you have defied. This very day the LORD will put you in my power…Then the whole world will know that Israel has a God, and everyone here will see that the LORD does not need swords or spears to save his people.”
(1 Samuel 17:45-47)
After watching a boy defeat a giant, did Israel get the message which was “Hey, God does not need swords or spears to save his people!” Fantasize with me for just one second that this event caused the people to have an epiphany. They turned to each other and instead of chasing after the Philistines they proclaimed, “From this day forward we will place our absolute trust in the Lord. The Almighty One will take care of us. Instead of killing our enemies let’s turn our swords into plows. Let’s become a great light to the world about the kind of Person that our mighty God is.”
Can you imagine how dramatically different the course of human history would have been? Of course, unfortunately, even David, the one who said those words to Goliath, spent most of his life fighting and killing. And so at the end of his life when David asked if he could build a temple for God, it’s almost as if God had to go on record and in print, that “I hate this fighting” and God did not allow David to build a temple for him,
“…he has forbidden me to do it, because I am a soldier and have shed too much blood.”
(1 Chronicles 28:3)
Rather than abandoning his rebellious people in Old Testament times, God stuck with them, but this came at a severe cost to his reputation. By stooping to stay in contact with a people who desired to do things contrary to his desire, God’s character was dragged through the mud:
“Wherever they went, they gave me a bad name. People said, ‘These are GOD’s people, but they got kicked off his land.’ I suffered much pain over my holy reputation, which the people of Israel blackened in every country they entered. ‘Therefore, tell Israel…I’m not doing this for you, Israel. I’m doing it for me, to save my character, my holy name, which you’ve blackened in every country where you’ve gone. I’m going to put my great and holy name on display, the name that has been ruined in so many countries, the name that you blackened wherever you went.”
5. The “Prince of Peace” to the rescue
The terrible Old Testament stories of fighting and violence reflect negatively on us (humanity), not God. We have ruined God’s reputation. It is in this context that we should consider the arrival of Jesus on the scene:
“No one has ever seen God. But the unique One, who is Himself God, is near to the Father’s heart. He has revealed God to us.”
The people could not “see” God because He simply could not clearly reveal himself in Old Testament times – the rebellion and the chaos of his chosen people was so severe.
God came in human form to clear up any misconceptions as to what God is like as well as to show us what the real kingdom is like. Just the way he came should say so much to us about who our God is. The God of the Old Testament, the Creator of the Universe, moved into the neighborhood by transporting himself into the womb of one of his sinful creatures and then began the 9 month process of growing, cell by cell, into a baby boy.
Jesus’ mission was to reveal the truth about God’s character (John 17:3-6) and to establish a Kingdom of love and service. Everywhere he went he gave parables to describe, “The Kingdom of heaven is like this…” and his description of the real Kingdom never resembled an earthly kingdom of power, force, coercion or violence.
“My Kingdom is not an earthly kingdom. If it were, my followers would fight to keep me from being handed over to the Jewish leaders. But my Kingdom is not of this world.”
For 3 and ½ years Jesus showed us what the King is like and what the Kingdom is like. Do we want to live in a Kingdom where the King lays down his life for enemies rather than killing them?
It was Jesus who opened our eyes to see that the principles of God’s Kingdom are love and service for others. Jesus was God in human form. His every word and action put skin on what this Kingdom really looks like. (1) Loving enemies and praying for them? That is the Kingdom! Carrying the pack of your national enemy an extra mile? That is the Kingdom. Washing the feet of your betrayer? That is the Kingdom. Laying down your life for another? That is the Kingdom! The climax of Jesus’ life was his death where he absorbed all of our violence and hatred, but yet his response was to return this only with love and forgiveness. The Cross is the clearest picture we will ever see of what the Kingdom of God really looks like!
Jesus gave those of us who call ourselves Christian but one command:
“And now I give you a new commandment: love one another. As I have loved you, so you must love one another. If you have love for one another, then everyone will know that you are my disciples.”
We are to love others in the same way that Jesus loved. Our mission as a people is to esteem above everything else to replicate the love of Jesus as he died on a cross – tortured to death by his own children.
Kingdoms of the world do all kinds of things. They raise taxes, fight wars, enact laws, and occasionally achieve some good in the world, but they are all based on a power-over structure. This is not what the real Kingdom looks like! Listen to Jesus’ contrast between the kingdoms of the world and his Kingdom:
“You know that the rulers of the heathen have power over them, and the leaders have complete authority. This, however, is not the way it shall be among you. If one of you wants to be great, you must be the servant of the rest; and if one of you wants to be first, you must be the slave of the others— like the Son of Man, who did not come to be served, but to serve and to give his life to redeem many people.’”
As Christians we belong to a Kingdom that is not of this world and when wars and violence are ever labeled as a “Christian” we misrepresent Christ who never commanded us to use violence for a “just” end. Wars can be discussed as to whether or not they are justified for this or that reason, but we should never in any way associate violence with a Christian endeavor. Our motto as Christians is to love, serve, and to present the truth about God as seen in Jesus Christ – period. This is what we do – this is all we do.
In conclusion, when we read about all the fighting in the Old Testament, let’s appreciate the fact that God stooped to an infinite degree to meet a violent people, but why would we ever want to return to something that is less than what we see in the Person of Jesus Christ? Now that we have seen and experienced the ideal, there is no turning back. Or should we go back to the “good old days” and initiate private vengeance but with provisionary cities of refuge? Should we insist that it is a shameful thing for a woman to speak in church or make provisions for men who might choose to take a second wife? Of course not, and as Christians we should go just as far to reject violence in any form as we would to distance ourselves from polygamy or the suppression of a woman’s right to speak in church.
Loving, serving, and praying for enemies is not “safe” – Jesus’ death on the Cross is evidence of that. In fact, God’s best friends throughout human history often seem to have had the worst of it from a worldly perspective. Just consider the persecution of Abel (killed), Job, Isaiah (sawed in half in a hollow log), Jeremiah (stoned to death in Egypt), John and Baptist (beheaded), Peter (crucified upside down), John (imprisoned on Patmos), and Paul – just to name a few! We are not called to live “practical” or “safe” lives.
We are called to live out the radical love of Jesus Christ. The love of God as revealed on Calvary forever changed the world and whenever God’s people unite on their singular purpose to love and service others the world is brought closer to the real Kingdom and the real King – the “Prince of Peace”.
(1) In this brief article I cannot begin to list the words and actions of Jesus that call Christians to a non-violent kingdom, but I would strongly recommend Greg Boyd’s book “The Myth of a Christian Nation”.
(pictures added by editor)
To read more of Brad’s excellent work and see his lectures on video, please visit his website: