Someone asked me to write about the apparent discrepancy between the loving God of the New Testament and the violence commanded, superintended, or executed by God in the Old Testament. While I think this distinction is oversimplified (cf. the last chapter of the Bible), I have done my best to answer cogently. The following response was considered unsatisfactory by the questioner, so if you have any ideas for its improvement, do share them. After all, it is likely that this question will be asked again.
In the Psalms, as in the entire Old Testament, there are texts in which God’s praises are sung, as well as texts about struggle. Questions can arise about how these relate to the double commandment of love which Jesus gives us: to love God above all and one’s neighbour as oneself.
Even in the Lauds of the first Sunday, whose Psalms are read on every feast day, we encounter this doubleness: after the Psalm of personal desire (“O God, you are my God, I watch for you from the dawn”) and the great canticle from Daniel (“Bless the Lord, all his works”), the last Psalm moves from song of praise to war chant: “Let the faithful celebrate his glory, rejoice even in their beds, the praise of God in their throats; and swords ready in their hands, to exact vengeance upon the nations, impose punishment on the peoples…”
Some say that the oldest text of the Bible is Exodus 15, the song of Israel’s liberation. Here, too, battle and praise blend together: “The LORD is a man of war; the LORD is his name. Pharaoh’s chariots and his host he cast into the sea…” The same goes for Psalm 136, with its recurring refrain “for his steadfast love endures forever”. The steadfast love of God is apparent both in his wise creation of the heavens and stretching out of the earth above the waters, and in his striking down the firstborn of Egypt. Verse 18 of this Psalm might sound paradoxical to our ears: “He killed mighty kings, for his steadfast love endures forever.”
How is this to be squared with the love of one’s neighbour in the New Testament?
Firstly, it is significant that the Biblical heroes are generally not impressive warriors. Again and again it is emphasized that the power of Israel does not lie in its strong men, but in God who protects the land. This becomes clear even during the military conquest of Israel, described in the book of Joshua: for instance, the walls of Jericho collapse because the people walk around them with the ark, according to God’s instructions (Jos. 6). But at the moment when the people does not act according to God’s will, even a weak army is capable of routing it, as happens at Ai (Jos. 7).
King David, the great hero of the Israelite people, starts out as a shepherd boy; he is capable of defeating the armoured giant Goliath because God decides the outcome of battle, and “the Lord saves not with sword and spear” (1 Sam. 17:47). This also becomes apparent in the rest of David’s life: he spends more time fleeing than achieving military successes. When he is in flight from the jealous king Saul, David refuses twice to kill his persecutor (1 Sam. 24 and 26); afterwards, in flight from his son Absalom, he lets himself be cursed without retaliating (2 Sam. 16).
So a tension exists in the Old Testament. On the one hand, it happens multiple times that God interferes violently to save the people of Israel from its enemies, or orders Israel like a commander to do battle. On the other hand, there is a strong realization that God accomplishes his plans not thanks to Israel’s military power, but precisely in spite of Israel’s weakness. Professional fighters, glorified in the literature of other nations, are treated with suspicion in the Bible.
This prompts the question: how is it possible for such a violent God to lead such a tame people? In my opinion it is due to the fact that God’s violence is always aimed at (1) liberation from the oppressor and (2) protection of what is holy, in particular God’s people, God’s law, and the city of Jerusalem where God’s temple stands.
The central thought of the OT is that God gives a country to his people, destined to become the place where God’s law is put into action. This presupposes an attitude of humility and obedience on the people’s part (no self-glorification and aggression!). It also means that this gift should be cherished: as long as the law is obeyed, God will take care of the rest. In other words, God has delimited a space and given it to the people in his particular care. Whenever this space is threatened, God acts, precisely because He bears love towards his people.
One could object that in that case God’s love is not universal. If God single-handedly kills 185,000 Assyrians in one night to end the siege of Jerusalem (2 Kgs. 19:35), then does God love Jerusalem but not the Assyrians?
This way of thinking seems too individualistic to me. For the very reason that God loves all people, He cannot allow his holy city to be conquered, because it is the place from which He wishes to grant blessing to the whole world. But that means that this city must be defended against enemies who would violate the holiness of the place (and so annihilate the blessing). You could say that the world sometimes needs to be protected against itself, by means fair or foul.
Throughout the entire Bible, the idea recurs that God loves the whole world and wants to bless it, but through the people (and places) of his choosing. It starts with the ‘father of the faithful’, Abraham. God sends him on his way with this blessing: “I will bless you and make your name great, so that you will be a blessing. I will bless those who bless you, and him who dishonors you I will curse, and in you all the families of the earth shall be blessed.” (Gen. 12:2-3)
To extend his love to the whole world, God chooses Abraham; but that means that the enemies of Abraham do not participate in God’s blessing.
What applies to Abraham, also applies to the people and the land of Israel: hence the war against the nations that stand in Israel’s way. Jerusalem in particular becomes a place of blessing for the whole world: it is destined to become the place of gathering for all nations to worship God.
The land of Israel and the city of Jerusalem were places of earth, previously inhabited by Gentile nations and subsequently capable of being threatened, sacked and destroyed by hostile powers. Hence the need to conquer them and then to defend them, with the ultimate aim of safeguarding God’s blessing. In Biblical historiography, God has a leading role in this process: in this way Israel is reminded that its power is not in military violence, but in listening to God’s law. God creates a space for the consciousness that his ultimate plan is the creation of a world of blessing and peace, so that mighty nations beat their swords into plowshares (Is. 2:4) and there is no more war.
In the New Testament, too, God sends someone to be a source of blessing for the whole world, namely Jesus. In the hearing of the skeptical Jewish council, Peter testifies about Jesus: “There is salvation in no one else, for there is no other name under heaven given among men by which we must be saved.” (Acts 4:12)
That is a reason why the struggle in the Old Testament does not resurface the same way in the New Testament: Jesus Christ is handed over and put to death (and the Father allows it to happen, He does not intervene this time), but He is then vindicated by being raised from the dead and ascending into Heaven. He is no longer threatened and needs no more defence; He has already suffered everything and is therefore elevated above all dangers. God’s blessing is no longer bound to a certain place, but is accessible everywhere, because Jesus is with us everywhere.
The Old Testament shows us how important the ‘holy land’ is and how much God loves and protects it; in the New Testament, it becomes evident that this kingdom is ultimately the reign of Christ, which is realized in heaven and carried in our hearts on earth, which we are all invited to do.
That is why the Old Testament remains a source of inspiration to me, including the tougher texts. It reminds me that we must be active in searching for a place where we can worship God in peace and with a good conscience (which may entail a radical ‘no’ to ourselves or others); that the sacred in our lives is vulnerable and in need of protection; but also that we cannot enforce the blessing ourselves, because it comes where and when God wants, greater and deeper than we can imagine in advance.