Reading the Old Testament Through the Eyes of Jesus

Saturday, May 16, 2009

I don't like the Old Testament. Most of all I am disturbed by its endorsements of mass violence in the name of God. I've blogged about this earlier but I've found myself increasingly troubled by these accounts of God supposedly ordering the mass slaughter of men, women, and even infants. Remember that story of Joshua and the battle of Jericho and the cute song for kids that goes "Joshua fought the battle of Jericho, and the walls came tumbling down"? Well that's a song about genocide folks. Its a song about murdering babies.
"When the trumpets sounded, the people shouted, and at the sound of the trumpet, when the people gave a loud shout, the wall collapsed; so every man charged straight in, and they took the city. They devoted the city to the LORD and destroyed with the sword every living thing in it—men and women, young and old, cattle, sheep and donkeys." (Joshua 6:20-21)
I find that profoundly disturbing. And even more disturbing is how so many of my fellow Christians can calmly justify that kind of holocaust. For example the Interpreter's Bible section on Joshua attempts to justify this genocide (known as the "herem") by saying that it shows how seriously God takes sin. Clark Pinnock - a theologian who I have deep respect for -in his book "The Scripture Principle" makes virtually the same argument. Reading this made my stomach turn. I couldn't help but think of the terrified mother screaming helplessly as she sees the Israelite soldiers dashing her 6-month-old baby's head against a rock, or the little boy who stares as he sees his mother and father beheaded before his eyes. How can anyone possibly justify that? By what sort of sick motivation would one even want to?

Let's face it, it's a no-brainer that killing a babies is evil. In fact the only people who would even question it are us Christians. Why? Because its in the Bible. What that means is that the Bible has the potential of making people's morality profoundly evil. That is something I find deeply troubling. The logic goes like this: if I am against killing babies it is because I have a "worldly" morality, and it is only through God's Word that we can know what it truly moral. Nevermind that I've been a Christian for quite some time now and hopefully have the mind of Christ. Nevermind that Jesus says that "if anyone harms one of these little ones it would be better for him to have a millstone tied around his neck and be cast into the sea" (Mk 9:42).

What we have are people who want to justify the Bible more than they care about the least. And I can tell you flat out that this is not what God's heart cares about. God when he was here on earth was not concerned about upholding his reputation, his concerns was in caring for the condemned, the rejected, the unclean. When we toss the most basic morality out the door and justify atrocities we are not being faithful to God. We are sinning, because we are becoming advocates of death.

Frankly, there is a lot in the OT that advocates this type of us-versus-them, 'hate your enemies and destroy them utterly for the Lord' mentality. This is likely what Jesus was confronting when he said "You have heard that it was said, 'Love your neighbor and hate your enemy.' But I tell you: Love your enemies" (Mt 5:43-44). He is here directly contradicting the message of hate which runs though the minor prophets (Samuel, Joshua, etc) and the early history of the Hebrew people. Yet in that same sermon he says "Do not think that I have come to abolish the Law or the Prophets; I have not come to abolish them but to fulfill them" (Mt 5:17). This brings us into a dilemma: on the one hand Jesus here and elsewhere directly contradicts the Old Testament and proposes a way that is it polar opposite. Yet he at the same time says that in doing this he is fulfilling the law, and that the God he sees in the OT is his loving Father!

In a way we could say that the way Jesus reads the Old Testament is like how we can look at the world: we can look at our world, seeing all sorts of pain and injustice in it, and we could conclude that there is no God. Or we could look at that same messed up hurting world and see that there is nothing more vital and needed than love, nothing we need more deeply than for that God of love to be real ,and for that love to somehow be stronger than all the hate around us. Jesus looks at the messed up Old Testament, a book that shows a very unvarnished picture of sinful humanity, including how horrific violence is often justified in the name of God, and nevertheless sees the God of love in there whom we so desperately need to find too.

What I also see in Jesus is a way for us to read the Bible. Jesus did not simply take everything his Bible said at face value. The Bible Jesus read said to not touch the unclean, but Jesus did. It said to kill and adulteress, but he forgave her. It said not to associate with sinners, but he welcomed them. It taught hatred of enemies, but he loved his. What if we could get a hold of how Jesus is reading his Bible, and read it like that too? What are the principles that Jesus is applying to his own exegesis here, and how can we apply them? How can we learn to read the Bible like Jesus and not like the Pharisees? Because if we read like the Pharisees did then the Bible will lead us into a depraved morality devoid of compassion that justifies genocide, and cause to not see Jesus when he is right there in front of us. One rule that Jesus teaches here is this: "by their fruits you shall know them" (Mt 7:16). In other words, we can know whether our interpretation of Scripture is right by looking at the fruits it bears. Does it lead us to being more loving, more compassionate, more like Jesus? Or does it lead us to justifying a horrific morality? Too often biblical exegesis does not ask this question, and it must.

This is the exact point renowned Old Testament scholar James Barr makes in his book "Biblical Faith and natural Theology" which you can check out for free on Google Books. In particular see pages 201-220 where Barr discusses the biblical herem (genocide). Barr concludes that biblical studies need to be coupled with ethics (what he calls natural theology). Another good read here is an essay by Chris Marshall entiled "The Violence of God and the Hermeneutics of Paul" in the book The Work of Jesus Christ in Anabaptist Perspective. (Sorry that one's not on Google). In it Marshall outlines a way to read the diffucult passages in the OT by adopting Paul's critical aproach to the law as being at the same time 'holy and good' and yet still leading to 'death'. It's a similar approach to what I have breifly hinted at above about reading the Bible with the same hermautic (interpretive lens) as Jesus, only Marhsall does this with Paul. It's a great read.

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At 3:43 AM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

So what do you make of the book of Revelation with 1/3rd of the Earth dying and seemingly everyone knows that it is the "wrath of the Lamb." 6:16 There are places in the Old Testament where is is God Himself that orders the killing of seemingly "innocent" people- It is hard to merely write these verses off just because it helps one sleep better at night. Anyone can make a caricature out of any given doctrine and make it look silly- but the problem isn't that we can't sleep at night- the problem is that the bible says things... God said things and we don't like what He said and we (royal we) assume we are more loving and compassionate than He is. This seems more like opinions of what God should be like rather than what He is like.

At 2:38 PM, Blogger Neil said...

A couple of thoughts on this one -- from an ex-Christian. It is not only Christians who are capable of questioning whether killing infants is evil -- the same is done by many adherents of any of the religions "of the book". Zionists in the West Bank do not shed tears when an Arab baby is killed by their forces, and they justify it --- just as do Moslem or other would be suicide bombers -- their babies have been killed, it is "justice" to see Jewish babies killed in return. This is the thinking. Not just among Christians. I suggest anyone who claims a moral guidance from outside of themselves, from some external authority, is always a potential victim of this kind of thinking given changing circumstances. Humanistic ethics, I believe, comes from people identifying with their fellow creatures, and knowing we are all alike. Or maybe I'm being too romantic about my own ideals here, too? Maybe it is just "the human condition" that we are fated to experience -- but no harm humanists and Christians like yourself trying to make this a slightly more enlightened world in the meantime.

At 9:18 AM, Anonymous Derek said...


So how would you answer the question? Does it keep you up at night? It's a dilemma that all of us Christians should have. On the one hand we want to be faithful to Scripture as the inspired word of God. On the other hand we need to read it with the same compassion and heart as Jesus had. We need to care about taking the Bible seriously, and we need to care just as much about the moral messages we are promoting, because to do otherwise would be unloving (and the Bible tells us that if we don't love people then we don't really love God. The two (listening to the Bible and loving others) are inseparable. So we all need to figure out how to balance them. There's no way around it.

At 9:27 AM, Anonymous Derek said...


I think that the root is way more political than it is religious. Lots of atheist regimes have committed genocide too. So I don't think the problem is "moral guidance outside yourself" per se. I agree that we should not ever go against our own conscience. So if that's what you mean then I agree. But I think we do need to have morals that are bigger than ourselves, our own self interest, and the self-interest of our own group or tribe. Putting one's own group above the others is what leads to that "us vs them" mentality. Their problem is that their god is too small.

At 8:36 AM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

put it in perspective, in our own lives, we have seen over 100 million deaths in the 20th centery alone, from WW1, WW2, Korea, and Vietnam, As well as all the other wars fought on the planet during the 1900's. In our present wars in the middle east, children are killed. Everyone dies sometime, Cars kill peaple. Cellphones kill peaple. Peaple fall our of thier tub and die all the time. Abortions around the world must kill millions a year. So before you can condemn GOD, perhaps you must fimd a way to justify our own ways. To do this is impossible. Do you pay taxes. Then you and your Government have killed more than anyone who died in the Bible. In war sometimes the only answer is to destroy the enemy entirely or he will rise up again to cause more trouble later. Could this be why war is so evil. Is this why GOD orders the complete distruction of his enemies? Much of the old testement foreshadows the future. Using the Atomic bombs on Japan created one of our best friends in the Japanese. Would this have happened if we did not smash them, and Kill them in WW2? Did we smash North Korea, No, and they are still a threat. We will more than likely fight and kill their again. Things to think about.

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At 7:39 PM, Anonymous Norberto said...

The Bible as a whole should't be interpreted literally by taking vesus out of context. The killing of inocent children, women and animals at Jericho by Joshua should not be consireded literally. The teachings of the Scriptures is what it counts. Whether the story of Jericho was real or just a story is irrelevant. The teaching of the story is that "God disaproves sin" Most pagans were inmoral and lowless people where promiscuity, adultery and sex with animals was common. We can apply the same analogy with Jesus teachings through parables. Was the story of the prodigal son real, or just a story to illustrate God's love for us sinners? It does not matter. What matters is what we learn from it.

At 1:22 PM, Anonymous Derek said...


I certainly agree that what matters is what we learn from it. But do keep in mind that the message of "God hates sin and will destroy anyone who is sinful" is the opposite message of the story of the prodigal son where there father runs out to embrace his wayward son. One is a message of severe consequence and the other is a message of forgiveness. Mercilessness vs mercy.

At 7:48 AM, Anonymous Brother John said...

I'm sorry but YHWH is an awful god. He is full of vengeance, wrath, and hatred. The Bible is a distraction at best.

At 7:05 PM, Blogger Rene Lafaut said...

I think when Jesus says that He came to fulfill the OT (Torah) He is saying that the OT tried to offer a way of finding peace with God and security from enemies... and it failed miserably over and over again...but He came to give (fulfill) the OT promises by showing a better away to find peace. This helps me to not justify the violence in the OT...and to embrace the new and better way of Jesus to love all human life from conception to it's natural end!

At 4:36 PM, Blogger Rene Lafaut said...

I see the OT as history spun/hashed by the Holy Spirit into a parable to teach us how to live dependent on God. The history used for this purpose in the OT is a mess: violence, genocide, lust, power, rules, anger, hostility, bondage, slavery, freedom, adultery, misguided loyalties, living by the sword, greed, jealousy, pride, nationalism, idol worship, envy, hatred, expectations, and independence from God. Somehow the Holy Spirit has woven Israel's journey into parable about the lives of those who want to journey with God and as a means of navigating and encouraging us to continue walking with Jesus in love, patience, kindness, goodness, peace, hope, compassion, joy, and faithfulness for all people from conceptions to our natural ends.

At 3:49 PM, Blogger Rene Lafaut said...

I now realize that I don't have a problem with Jesus saying love your enemies...what didn't ring true was: "love God's enemies"...because I had hardened my heart towards God's enemies in the OT...but when I saw or realized this mistake I knew God loved His enemies...and doesn't need me to hate them (the dead or the living)...because He wants them to have peace too: reconciliation with God and those they hate, and those that hate them. This has serious implications in my heart, and on how I read/interpret the OT!

At 9:36 PM, Anonymous Derek said...

Thanks René, that's really insightful!

At 3:36 PM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

they were killing the race of giants where fallen angels had mated with women told in Genesis chapter 6...remember Goliath...they were an evil people who sacrificed children to their idols....a lot of scripture will back that child sacrifice in the should probably read the last few verses of Revelation which says whosoever adds or takes away from this book...will receive the plagues of it and/or be removed from the book of life...who is man to question God

At 2:05 PM, Anonymous Derek said...

People have always found ways to portray their enemies as inhuman monsters. We see this all through history, and we see it in ancient times as well. The Bible's genocide accounts are an example of this. The thing we need to ask is if it is terribly immoral for a people to sacrifice children, how would it be moral to kill those same children? It would in fact be worse because now instead of killing a few children, they are committing genocide -- killing "everything that breathes". This was, biblical scholars tell us, actually a form of human sacrifice itself practiced by the ancient Israelites, and it was not only endorsed by Israel as the will of Yahweh, but just as much practiced by the surrounding nations as the will of their tribal gods as well. What we have here is a record of people doing evil things, and attributing this to God's will claiming that their victims were inhuman monsters. They were not. Any way you slice it this is profoundly immoral.

I do not believe in that tribal god. I do not believe in Zeus or Jupiter or or the Canaanite god of war called Yahweh that we see in the Old Testament genocide accounts. The word Jesus used for that kind of god is the devil. I am an atheist to that understanding of god, and instead afirm Jesus as Lord.

At 7:17 PM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

Point 1: "Let's face it, it's a no-brainer that killing a (sic) babies is evil. In fact the only people who would even question it are us Christians."

Hm. I'm not sure you gave a lot of thought to the US since circa 1973 when writing this sentiment, for there's quite a large swathe of Americans that don't view killing a child as evil. Indeed an argument could be made that Aztec child sacrifice was more purposeful because it was at least enacted on theological duty, meanwhile we choose to simply turn a blind eye to fetal humanity on the grounds of convenience.

Point 2: Biblical inerrancy.

A sure fire problem for a number of Christian theologians the world over, but not for Catholics. The Catholic view of the bible is simply this: "The word of God, written in the words of men." For Catholics there is moral progress from the ancient Israeli interpretation of God (which while revolutionarily moral in its barbaric day, was also clearly wrong in attributing God for nationalistically motivated war lust and genocide).

On Catholicism, we as a human species have improved our understanding and worship of God "in truth and in spirit".

Jesus is ground zero for all Christians regards the divine revelation of moral theory. Unlike the Ten Commandments, His standard of righteousness and sinless-ness is so overwhelmingly powerful, that it's nay impossible to achieve even for the very best people of modern day. Far from executing an enemy, his wife, his children, and all his neighbors, Jesus tells us return no evil for evil, but rather turn the other cheek, and pray for people who persecute you.

At 7:24 AM, Blogger Linda said...

I'm reading the Bible through in a year, and the old testament for the first time.. I've been a Christian all my life, but I'm horrified by what I'm reading in the OT.. it's worse than Steven King and makes it hard to pray and go to sleep afterwards. And it pounds away at it endlessly.

I was taught, and I believe, the doctrine of the trinity, 3 parts of God in one. That makes Jesus a part of God the Father- one and the same. I can't find a way to resolve the dichotomy (did God change His mind about His approach?). I interpret it to say I can be evil one day and then change my mind and be good the next day, which I don't buy into because of my morals.

In short, my Bible reading is shaking my view of God for the worse. It doesn't work for me to try to justify God's behavior.

At 3:31 PM, Blogger Rene Lafaut said...

Early Christian gentile converts were enthusiastic and euphoric about the Good News, but when they began to read the OT they saw a BIG difference and wanted to reject the OT. Those in Authority in the Church understood this, but said that the OT ought not be thrown out but be interpreted allegorically, and symbolically instead of literally. Just because people are recorded as doing immoral stuff in the OT does not mean God condoned it. People and clans, and empires were rough, brutal, and life was cheap back then, and they attributed much evil to God or their gods because they did not have a fuller revelation of who God was. Note, God can take life because He can give life but we ought to hesitate in justifying everything without listening to our consciences. None of us are innocent...we all have sin in our lives...but God who is fully revealed in Jesus shows us that God is love. Stick with the NT if you need to...and keep your image of God clean, gentle, kind, and loving...that is what is all about. Having said that, there are plenty of glimpses of God being good, kind and caring to humanity with in the pages of the OT. One's views of God ought not be etched in stone... they are constantly changing...evolving...and ought to be informed by revelation: Jesus Christ. I know that I projected my morality onto God early in my Christian walk (in some ways I still do)...some of it was good much bad...if we can do this we have to allow the ancients that freedom too no matter how wrong they were. God is not coercive. We don't know the full let's not close our minds to what the Spirit is saying: love like and in the power of God's only Son: Jesus the true image of the unseen God.

At 6:14 PM, Anonymous Derek said...

You may want to read my book Disarming Scripture. It deals with the questions you raise here in your comment. As I struggles with those same questions, I felt that it needed a book length treatment as it is far too big a problem to address in a blog post.

At 9:52 AM, Blogger Linda said...

I think I've figured something out that works for me. If I view OT/NT as similar to dark/light, evil/good, harshness/love, sinner/saint, and death/life, then I discover a dynamic that propels us forward through time and life. This is the same journey Paul makes, and that I have walked in my life. The whole story delivers hope.
I'm ordering your book today! Thanks!

At 8:09 PM, Blogger Joshua Anandappa said...

This comment has been removed by the author.


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