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God seems to sanction raw violence in the Old Testament. Does his character change in the New Testament?


The Old Testament contains accounts of one bloody war after another. Christians are often troubled that God is at the center of many of the battles. Perhaps most disturbing of all is the practice of herem, a Hebrew word difficult to translate (often done awkwardly as "things under the ban"). Though hard to translate, herem's meaning for the native inhabitants of the land is clear: the entire enemy must be killed.

How are we to understand this in light of Jesus' statement, "But I say, love your enemies" (Matt. 5:44)? It is no wonder that people come to the conclusion that the Old Testament picture of God is closer to Osama bin Laden than to Jesus Christ.

But there is no disconnect here between the Testaments. The God of the Old Testament is the same as the one we read about in the New. He is a God of love as well as a holy God who judges evil people. As we read from Genesis to Revelation, we see not a character change but an unfolding story of God's great victory over sin, evil, and death. This takes place through mighty acts of justice—that is, again and again, acts of retributive judgment. Goodness and severity go together in this story.

In the Old Testament, we read stories of conflict as God fights evil in the world. The first time God is called a warrior is in Exodus 15, which celebrates God's rescue of his people from the oppressive Egyptians. Likewise, only because God fought for Israel is Joshua's victory over the Canaanites possible, and the text makes it clear that the Canaanites must die—not to make room for the Israelites, but because of their sins. In this case, God makes his people his executioners.

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May 2003

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