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

Carie Patterson, Prairie Village, Kansas

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.

Not all of God's warring activity in the Old Testament, however, is directed toward Israel's enemies. God also fights against Israel—the most notable instance being the conquest of Jerusalem by Nebuchadnezzar (Lam. 2:1-5).

The Old Testament ends with God's people back in the land, but living under the dominance of a pagan nation. The last prophets of the Old Testament looked to the future for a return of the divine warrior who would come and destroy their enemies, bringing them back their freedom (Dan. 7; Zech. 14).

After a period of prophetic silence, the New Testament picks up the story. The first voice we hear is that of John the Baptist. He is clearly expecting a violent Messiah, the warrior from heaven who would defeat the Romans and punish disobedient Jewish people (Matt. 3:7-12).

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Having heard that Jesus is healing people, exorcising demons, and preaching the Good News, John thinks he may have mistakenly baptized the wrong person (Matt. 11:1-19)!

Of course, John did not err. Jesus is the divine warrior, the one whom the Old Testament expected, but he has heightened and intensified the battle. The goal of warfare has now been elevated, and the weapons for this war have changed. Jesus battles spiritual powers and authorities. He directs Peter to put away the sword (Matt. 26:50-56), because winning this battle involves dying rather than killing.

It is, however, a battle—part of God's plan of warfare against evil, begun in the Old Testament. The military language used to describe Christ's redemptive acts (Eph. 4:7-13; Col. 2:13-15) makes this clear.

But this is just the start of Christ's work. Christ's victory over Satan is definite but not finally realized. The Book of Revelation describes the return of Christ in the cloud chariot (1:7). He is riding a white horse and leading the armies of heaven. Here the final battle, which includes vultures eating dead bodies, is bloodier than anything in the Old Testament (19:11-21). This is a picture of the final judgment, of which the wars of the Old Testament are a foretaste and a warning.

From Genesis to Revelation, God's character remains consistent. He is a loving, powerful, holy judge—and warrior against evil—from beginning to end.

Tremper Longman III, Robert H. Gundry Professor of Biblical Studies at Westmont College, is coauthor of Show Them No Mercy: Four Views on God and the Canaanite Genocide (Zondervan, 2003).

Related Elsewhere

For more coverage on the current conflict, commentary and thought on just war, or Christian debate, see our CTWar in Iraq archive. For relevant articles on the war from news agencies around the globe, see CT's updated war links page.

A downloadable Bible study on the implications of war with Iraq is available at CurrentIssuesBibleStudy.com. These unique Bible studies use articles from current issues of Christianity Today to prompt thought-provoking discussions in adult Sunday school classes or small groups.

Christianity Today reflections on war include:

Apocalypse Again and Again | The Bible doesn't tell us when to go to war but how to live in a war-ridden world. (April 16, 2003)
Are Prayers in a Time of War Really About Comfort? | In part. But their main purpose is about much, much more than that. (March 28, 2003)
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The Iraq War Has Little Effect on the Rapture Index | The founder of an online end times "speedometer" says that other current events are more connected to biblical prophecy.  (March 27, 2003)
'The End is Not Yet' | The president of Dallas Theological Seminary says there will be an increase in wars and rumors of wars before the end times, but date setting should not be a priority for evangelicals.  (March 27, 2003)
What George Bush's Favorite Devotional Writer Says About War | "War is the most damnably bad thing," wrote Oswald Chambers. (March 24, 2003)
Just War in Iraq | Sometimes going to war is the charitable thing to do. (Dec. 10, 2002)

Earlier Good Question columns include:

How is it that not all prayers for the salvation of others are answered?
If God is in us, shouldn't it be easier to love one another?
What do we gain from a bodily resurrection?
What is the difference between the brain and the soul?
How can I reconcile my belief in the inerrancy of Scripture with comments in Bible translations that state that a particular verse is not 'in better manuscripts'?
Is there a biblical principle behind the punishment of those who break the law?
Is it unscriptural for a Christian to be cremated?
Won't heaven's joy be spoiled by our awareness of unsaved loved ones in hell?
Where exactly do "Oneness" Pentecostals stand in relation to orthodoxy?
Do a man and a woman become married after having sex or after exchanging vows?
How Do You Know That You Have Truly Forgiven Someone?
Who Are We to Judge?
Should We File Lawsuits?
Can We Expect God to Forgive Unbelievers Who 'Don't Know What They're Doing'?
Is the Stock Market Good Stewardship?
Is Satan Omnipresent?
Is Suicide Unforgivable?
Was Slavery God's Will?
A Little Wine for the Soul?
Should We All Speak in Tongues?
Did Jesus Really Descend to Hell?
Take, Eat—But How Often?
Is Christmas Pagan?
Are Christians Required to Tithe?
Is Revelation Prophecy or History?
You're Divorced—Can You Remarry?
If Grace Is Irresistible, Why Evangelize?
Does the 'Bible Code' Really Exist?
What's the Unforgivable Sin?
What Bible Version Did Jesus Read?
Did God Die on the Cross?
You Must Be Born Again—But at What Age?
Was the Revolutionary War Justified?
Can the Dead Be Converted?
What Is the Significance of the Shroud of Turin?
Is Hell Forever?
Why Are There Denominations?
Did Paul Baptize for the Dead?
Do Demons Have Zip Codes?
What Is the Gospel of Thomas?

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