Violence in the Bible

Peter Ditzel

Violence in the Bible. The battle of Ai in a painting showing Joshua holding a sword and buckler with a skeleton holding a spear and fighting beside him.
This fanciful painting of the battle of Ai depicts death as fighting alongside Joshua. John Trumbull: Joshua at the Battle of Ai – Attended by Death Public Domain

Christians and non-Christians alike have often pondered the question of violence in the Bible. Many see God’s commands to kill the inhabitants of Canaan (e.g. Joshua 6:21; 10:40; 1 Samuel 15:3) as sanctioning Christians fighting in wars. Others view such statements as “God is love” (1 John 4:8) and “love your enemies” (Matthew 5:44) as prohibiting Christians from acts of violence. Nonbelievers say these Scriptures contradict and use them to ridicule the Christian faith. Some Bible teachers have tried to reconcile these discrepancies by asserting a middle ground in which Christians are to seek peace when possible while understanding that certain circumstances allow for violence. How are we to understand the fact that the Bible appears to condone and even command brutal violence while also calling for peace and nonviolence?

Violence in the Old Testament

Violence abounds in the Old Testament. Scripture clearly shows some of it as wrong. For example, God punished Cain for killing his brother, Abel (Genesis 4). However, God did not punish Abraham for going to war to rescue Lot (Genesis 14:14-16). Further, God even commanded war and slaughter without mercy, such as when Joshua entered the promised land. Are we, as Christians, to see this as teaching us that certain circumstances allow or even command us to fight?

Another question arises concerning the imprecatory Psalms. The Psalms contain imprecatory prayers in which the Psalmist asks God to bring physical harm upon enemies. Are we, as Christians, to pray such prayers?

Many pastors teach, based on these Old Testament Scriptures, that we Christians are to pray against our enemies and desire and pray for their harm. Further, they say that we are to fight when necessary, such as in what they call “just wars.” But does our Lord, Savior, Good Shepherd, Forerunner, and Author and Perfecter of our faith—the One we are supposed to listen to (Mark 9:7)—agree?

Peace and Blessings in the New Testament

Within the context of the Sermon on the Mount, Jesus gives us some remarkable teachings. Let’s look at Matthew 5:43: “You have heard that it was said, ‘You shall love your neighbor, and hate your enemy.’” There’s no Old Testament Scripture that explicitly states what Jesus says here. Nevertheless, plenty of Old Testament passages imply it.

For example, Deuteronomy 7:2 commands, “And when the LORD your God delivers them up before you, and you strike them; then you shall utterly destroy them. You shall make no covenant with them, nor show mercy to them.” Joshua 10:40 says, “So Joshua struck all the land, the hill country, the South, the lowland, the slopes, and all their kings. He left no one remaining, but he utterly destroyed all that breathed, as the LORD, the God of Israel, commanded.” I could cite many more verses like this. These are what I believe Jesus had in mind when He stated that the Old Testament told the Jews to hate their enemies.

Then, directly contradicting the Old Testament’s standard of how to treat one’s enemies, Jesus teaches, “But I tell you, love your enemies, bless those who curse you, do good to those who hate you, and pray for those who mistreat you and persecute you” (Matthew 5:44). This was a revolutionary change from the Old Testament standard!

Think about it. How can you fight with and kill your enemy while loving him? How can you bless your enemy while cursing him? How can you desire harm for your enemy while doing him good? It is impossible! Certainly, some preachers, like politicians, are good at twisting words. But God does not twist His words. Black is not white. Hate is not love, cursing is not blessing, wanting harm is not doing good. The Old Covenant is not the New Covenant. Moses was not Jesus. “For the law was given through Moses. Grace and truth were realized through Jesus Christ” (John 1:17).

Martin Luther wrote, “So, then, we will neither observe nor accept Moses. Moses is dead. His rule ended when Christ came. He is of no further service…. Many great and outstanding people have missed it, while even today many great preachers still stumble over it. They do not know how to preach Moses, nor how properly to regard his books. They are absurd as they rage and fume, chattering to people, ‘God’s word, God’s word!’ All the while they mislead the poor people and drive them to destruction” (“How Christians Should Regard Moses”).

The Old Testament is God’s Word. But it is not the Christian’s rule of life. It was the ministry of death (2 Corinthians 3:7), and its rule is over. So, Luther wasn’t exaggerating when he said that those who want to put us under the Old Testament by making it equal in the Word of God to the New Testament are truly driving their hearers to destruction.

The Old Covenant was Israel’s standard of law; the New Covenant is the believer’s standard of love. I want to point out to those who would try to find loopholes in Jesus’ teaching that Paul firmly verifies it:

Repay no one evil for evil. Respect what is honorable in the sight of all men. If it is possible, as much as it is up to you, be at peace with all men. Don’t seek revenge yourselves, beloved, but give place to God’s wrath. For it is written, “Vengeance belongs to me; I will repay, says the Lord.” Therefore “If your enemy is hungry, feed him. If he is thirsty, give him a drink; for in doing so, you will heap coals of fire on his head.” Don’t be overcome by evil, but overcome evil with good.

Romans 12:17-21

Yes, some try to find a loophole among even these plain words. They see “if it is possible,” and they say, “Aha, you see that it is not always possible. There are times when you must stand up and fight.” But Paul is saying nothing that excuses standing up and fighting. Vincent’s Word Studies explains: “Not if you can, but if others will allow. The phrase is explained by as much as lieth in you….” The only thing coming from us must be peace. If someone else insists on acting violently, then at least we’ve done our best to prevent it. And, once someone becomes violent, are we then excused to retaliate? The following verse plainly forbids it. We are not to avenge ourselves, but leave vengeance up to God.

The Old Testament Shows Us Types

Why did God command the Israelites to hate their enemies? Because, “…all these things happened to them by way of example, and they were written for our admonition, on whom the ends of the ages have come” (1 Corinthians 10:11). The Greek word translated as “example” in the English quoted above is tupoi, which can be literally translated into English as “types.”

The Old Testament is not our standard of Christian behavior. But it does show us types of the realities that the New Testament ushered in. The Israelites’ entering into the promised land and conquering the Canaanite people there under Joshua was a type of Jesus’ victory over sin. I’m not saying that the Canaanites pictured sin itself. Remember, they occupied the Promised Land, which pictured our rest in Christ and the kingdom of heaven. Thus, their being slain and replaced by the Israelites pictured Jesus’ conquering our old, sinful selves and replacing them with our new regenerated and saved selves.

Moses had to stay on the other side of the Jordan because he pictured the law, and the law could not conquer sin. The job of conquering the people of the promised land had to be left to Joshua, just as the job of conquering our sinfulness could only be accomplished by Jesus. Jesus is the English translation of Iēsous, which is a Greek transliteration of Joshua.

As God’s commands to the people of Israel to smite their enemies typifies Jesus Christ’s conquering our sinfulness, so the imprecatory prayers found in the Psalms also typify something. What are they types of? The answer is found right in Matthew 5:44: “But I tell you, love your enemies, bless those who curse you, do good to those who hate you, and pray for those who mistreat you and persecute you” (Matthew 5:44). In one sense, we can see that what Jesus is saying is the opposite of imprecatory prayers that ask God to curse our enemies. But more precisely, what Jesus is saying is the antitype.

The people of the Old Covenant called down curses on their enemies. But we, under the New Covenant, using the love of God dwelling in us, are to call down blessings on our enemies. Instead of praying against them, we’re to pray for them. This, of course, can include praying for their salvation.

In Romans 12:20, Paul teaches that when we do good for our enemy, we “will heap coals of fire on his head.” He’s saying something akin to what he says in Romans 2:4, that the goodness of God leads to repentance. If our enemies are elect, our doing good for them will be a factor in leading them to repentance. For those who are not elect, our doing good only serves to expose them for what they are. In the end, God will judge and curse the wicked and unbelieving. For now, He gave us a clear command to pray and do good for our enemies.

Scriptures in the New Testament that may seem like they’re calling down curses on others are merely statements of the position those people hold in relation to God. The action of the scribes and Pharisees in shutting the kingdom of heaven to people (by opposing Jesus Christ, who is the Door) exposes them as reprobates who will themselves not enter in (Matthew 23:14 [verse 13 in some versions]). Judas brought damnation on himself by betraying Jesus (Matthew 26:23–24). Those who don’t love Jesus are anathema; that is, they have set themselves aside for destruction (1 Corinthians 16:22). Since it is through believing the true Gospel that we receive salvation, those who preach a false gospel are preventing their own salvation (Galatians 1:8–9; the word usually translated “accursed” is anathema). Paul apparently considered Alexander unrepentant, and those who are unrepentant, the Lord will judge according to their works (2 Timothy 4:14; see Revelation 20:12-13).

Christian Active Non-Violence

What does this tell us about what we can expect from the world? In citing several Old Testament passages that speak of man’s natural tendency toward sinfulness, Paul includes these lines: “Their feet are swift to shed blood. Destruction and misery are in their ways. The way of peace, they haven’t known” (Romans 3:15-17). Taken as a whole, sinful humanity will turn to violence.

Our lives, however, are to be actively non-violent. I want to show this by going back to the Sermon on the Mount. We’ve seen that the Law of Moses taught the Israelites to harm and hate their enemies. But Jesus taught that this was not God’s true standard of righteousness. This Old Testament, shadowy standard seen in the law included what Latin calls lex talionis, the law of retaliation.

I recently explained Matthew 5:38-39 in “The Love of Money: A Hallmark of Our Times.” So, I’ll just summarize that Jesus isn’t telling us to stand against the evil person, but to expect another blow. Those who teach that Jesus is saying to stand firm are encouraging more violence and endangering people in abusive relationships. If you are in such a relationship, know that Jesus’ words do not prevent you from getting out and seeking safety! This is an active way of preventing violence, and doing this benefits both partners.

In Matthew 5:40, Jesus changes the circumstances, but He’s still teaching active non-violence: “If anyone sues you to take away your coat, let him have your cloak also” (Matthew 5:40). Instead of slapping you, the person is now suing you to get your coat. Instead of doing the natural thing and retaliating, you are to take charge of the situation by giving the person even more clothes.

The next verse is similar: “Whoever compels you to go one mile, go with him two” (Matthew 5:41). If someone in authority presses you into service as a courier to go a certain distance, go twice the distance. Go above and beyond.

Jesus then says, “Give to him who asks you, and don’t turn away him who desires to borrow from you” (Matthew 5:42). This ties in with and is elaborated by what Luke records:

If you lend to those from whom you hope to receive, what credit is that to you? Even sinners lend to sinners, to receive back as much. But love your enemies, and do good, and lend, expecting nothing back; and your reward will be great, and you will be children of the Most High; for he is kind toward the unthankful and evil. Therefore be merciful, even as your Father is also merciful.

Luke 6:34-36

Yes, give to those who ask, and don’t expect to receive it back. Notice how Luke intermingles it with “love your enemies.” In Matthew, Jesus’ teaching to love our enemies is in the verses that follow. But it’s all part of one teaching. Instead of becoming violent with our enemies, and rather than passively resisting, we should give our enemies what they want and even more. So, instead of defiantly standing there, we should be actively showing love.

Love and Violence Don’t Mix

We must not look back to the violence of the Old Testament as an example to follow. We are not to be Christian Januses. That is, we are not to look forward and backward at the same time. As I have said before, if we are believers, the law of Christ is Christ living in us. The outward manifestation of Christ in us is love. But it is not just any love. It is not merely love as expressed in the Old Testament. It is not even the love found in the Great Commandment, “You shall love your neighbor as yourself” (as found in Leviticus 19:18 and quoted in various places in the New Testament). It is the love of “love your enemies” and caring for them. It is the love of overcoming evil with good (Romans 12:21).

The violence of the Old Testament is as far from the love of the New Testament as east is from west. We must not get our morality from the Old Testament.

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