The bible is full of passages we love. Words that bring us comfort in a dark time. Words that inspire us to live according to how God designed us. Words that instruct our hearts and fill us with wonder. But then there are passages of Old Testament violence.
Those passages we have a difficult time swallowing. They make us a bit squeamish.
Passages like this, where Israel conquers Jericho:
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)
The fall of Jericho is often hailed as an emblematic sign of God’s victory through his people. But the scene itself was very violent. Israel completely destroyed everything that breathed. What’s more is that God is the one who commanded and empowered this destruction of human life.
Why would God endorse such violence? To some, this may seem like a divinely sanctioned crime against humanity. And this isn’t the only passage where we see this kind of thing. The book of Joshua has several instances of such violence as Israel conquers the land that was promised to Abraham.
How does this square with what we know about our God being a God of love?
Here are five things every Christian should understand about Old Testament violence.
1. Know the historical context.
Historical context is so important in understanding what was happening with Israel’s conquest of Jericho. The author of Joshua doesn’t give us much of this context because the original audience he wrote to was already aware of it.
Some people look at the destruction of Jericho and wonder why God would destroy these innocent, fun-loving people. But these people were not innocent or fun-loving. The people in Jericho engaged in some dark practices.
Warning: this is a bit graphic.
In Jericho, pagan worship through sex was a regular practice. People would go to the temple to commit certain acts with prostitutes as worship. These prostitutes were likely not there by their own free choice; they were trafficked. Sex slavery was a central part of the economy and culture of Jericho.
In other Canaanite worship, the people were known to sacrifice their infant children on altars of stone that were heated by fire. They essentially tortured their own babies to death so that the gods would bless them.
These violent and heinous acts were a part of the fabric of the culture. They were celebrated by everyone in the community. This is what God needed to remove from the face of the earth.Historical context is so important in understanding any biblical passage. The author doesn't always give it to us, because the original audience would have already known it. Click To Tweet
2. Know that these events are descriptive, not prescriptive.
While God did exercise this judgment on Jericho, the story is not prescriptive for us today. That means that we shouldn’t take it as a template for anything we would do in modern times. This was a very specific moment in Israel’s history when God judged these people and removed them from the land he had promised to Israel.
Anyone who uses a passage like this to justify some kind of violence against another person or group is not a follower of Jesus. Israel did not judge Jericho—God did. He only used Israel to do it. We don’t get to assume God is using us to carry out his judgment.
What’s more is that everything the author describes in the story points out that Israel was very passive in these events:
- God is the one who brought the people into the land by parting the Jordan River (Joshua 3:1-17).
- God made his presence known by sending the commander of his army to meet with Joshua (Joshua 5:13-15).
- And God is the one who made the walls of the city fall down (Joshua 6:1-21).
Israel is not the main actor in this story—God is. This story isn’t about Israel versus Jericho; it’s about God versus Jericho.
We don’t have the authority to judge and condemn; only God does. And that’s what we see happening in the destruction of a city like Jericho.We don't have the authority to judge and condemn; only God does. Click To Tweet
3. Know that God’s justice is perfect.
As hard as it is to accept, we need to know that God’s justice is perfect. If God has cast judgment on a person or city, we have to know that his judgment is pure.
This is also a sobering reminder about God’s justice: what may seem harsh to us is only what is fair. Because of our own fallenness, the damaging and destroying nature of sin is often lost on us. This graphic scene of judgment is an important reminder to us about how seriously God takes sin.
Even still, we might begin to question whether everybody in the city of Jericho was truly evil. What about those who were young, those who didn’t understand what was happening? To be honest, I don’t have a great answer for that.
But just because God takes someone’s earthly life through judgment, that doesn’t necessarily mean that he has condemned their eternal soul. Perhaps there were some for whom God’s act of justice was also an act of grace.
For some, they may haven’t yet been indoctrinated in all the evil practices of this city. And by taking their lives, God saved them from growing into all the wicked things that would have required judgment. Maybe God was showing them grace by taking them out of this world.
4. Know that the invitation to God’s grace is extended to everyone.
An invitation to God’s grace is always present. We see that in the life of Rahab. Rahab was a prostitute in the city of Jericho, but she put her faith in God because she recognized his power.
Here’s what she said about the God of Israel:
…For the Lord your God, he is God in the heavens above and on the earth beneath. (Joshua 2:11)
As a result of Rahab’s faith, she and her whole family were spared judgment. God loves showing grace. He will even show grace to entire peoples.
The prophet Jonah knew this when God sent him to the Ninevites. The Ninevites were just as wicked as those in Jericho, and they were cruel and oppressive to the people in Israel. Jonah knew that if he preached to the Ninevites, they might repent, and God wouldn’t destroy them. So Jonah didn’t want to go because he wanted to see the Ninevites destroyed. He was upset that God would show grace, even to his enemies.
But we were God’s enemies too. And God showed us grace.
For if while we were enemies we were reconciled to God by the death of his Son, much more, now that we are reconciled, shall we be saved by his life. (Romans 5:10)We were God's enemies. And he showed us grace. Click To Tweet
5. Know that there are certain things in the Bible that we may never be comfortable with.
Even with all of this, I still feel a bit squeamish about Old Testament violence. I’m uncomfortable with passages where God commands the destruction of a city. And I don’t know that the discomfort will go away anytime soon.
And that’s okay. Because I know that my understanding is limited. The way I see justice and goodness is tainted by the fact that I am a fallen person. My mind and heart are darkened by my own sinfulness. I look at justice through a dirty window.
But I know that God sees in full what I can only understand in part. And I know enough about God to be able to trust him with the things that make me uncomfortable.
I know everything I need to know about God when I think about a bloodstained cross and an empty tomb. All of God’s justice and grace were put on full display. When Jesus hung on the cross, he took the weight of justice that was meant for me. And at the same time, he was inviting me into grace.
So, while in past times God used his people as agents of justice, followers of Jesus today are agents of grace. We are called to invite others into the grace we experience in Jesus because Jesus took the full weight of justice for us.God sees in full what I can only understand in part. And I know enough about God to be able to trust him with the things that make me uncomfortable. Click To Tweet
MORE RESOURCES TO CHECK OUT
If you enjoyed this article about how to grapple with Old Testament violence, these books might be useful resources to you.
- Confronting Old Testament Controversies: Pressing Questions about Evolution, Sexuality, History, and Violence by Tremper Longman
- The World around the Old Testament: The People and Places of the Ancient Near East by Bill T. Arnold and Brent A. Strawn
A version of this article originally appeared here.