Violence in the Old Testament
The earth then opened up and swallowed all who with Dathan had conspired and who Abiram’s lead had followed. The wicked perished in the fire.Psalm 106:7
Can you sing this?
Can you sing Ps 106:7 in church? At the top of your voice? People were buried alive or consumed by fire. And their little children? What did they do wrong? What do you feel when you are asked to sing, “But God will crush the heads of foes, the hairy crown of him who goes in ways of foul transgression” (Ps 68:8)? What do you wish when you sing, “But may the wicked from the earth be driven” (Ps 104:8)? Are you happy when you sing to Babylon, “How happy he who shall, devoid of pity, dash on the rocks the children of your city!” (Ps 137:4)? What do you mean with what you sing about the wicked: “May woes and misery await them, I with a perfect hatred hate them!” (Ps 139:12)?
And what about destroying all the people of Jericho and Ai (Joshua 6 and 8) including babies and children? Was it really necessary to end the life of the son of Shelomith (Lev 24:23) with cruel stones? The OT is full of bloodshed and violence. If you want to convince your neighbours of the truth of God’s Word they immediately will point to the way God dealt with people in the OT. With the nations around Israel, yes, even with His own people. “How can you believe in a God who allowed horrible punishments on the way to Canaan and mass murder in Canaan?” they will ask you. The biblical violence (the Hebrew word is hamas) is such a stumbling block to many.
Yes, what do we tell the critics of biblical violence? We can ask them to first focus on the heinous horror of the people the LORD punished. God’s punishment fits the crime: eye for eye, life for life. And even then God’s justice is merciful, His punishment fair. There was always opportunity for repentance. How long did Noah, the preacher of righteousness (2 Peter 2:5) preach? 120 years. What a long time to repent! God didn’t send the Flood until the earth was fully corrupt (Gen 6:5, 12). And God did not destroy Sodom and Gomorrah until not even a quorum of righteousness was left in the cities. And what about the iniquity of the Amorites? God did not judge them until their atrocities were full (Gen 15:16, 19-21). Only then God stopped their gruesome injustice and idolatry.
Further, this is what we read in Deut 20 about those who were not that evil as the ‘Amorites’:
When you go near a city to fight against it, then proclaim an offer of peace to it. And it shall be that if they accept your offer of peace, and open to you, then all the people who are found in it shall be placed under tribute to you, and serve you.Deuteronomy 20:10-11
No, we don’t say this in order to defend God. How could we possibly do that? Moreover, it’s not necessary. The LORD knew what He did when He guided Israel on the way to the Messiah. Violence was the consequence of the enmity He had set between His seed from whom the Messiah, the Saviour, would come, and the seed of him who had only one desire, namely to prevent the coming of the Messiah. The enmity was in order to save Gods people, yes, including all His people also here in Australia. Violence was the consequence of this enmity. Then we bow our heads in shame.
Do you know what? The ultimate violence was on Golgotha, not by you and me. No, the violence of death was for the complete innocent One. The OT violence was to keep the via dolorosa, the road of suffering, open. Satan couldn’t break up that road. He tried, yes, how he tried in the OT. As a dragon he stood before the woman (Rev 12). But God safeguarded the way to Bethlehem and Golgotha.
When we sing, I said, ‘I’ve come; see, I am here. O God, to do your will is my desire. Now take my life and mould it. I’ve come: the book foretold it’ we sing about king David who offered heartfelt obedience to God, but ultimately we sing about the great Son of David, as we know it from Heb 10:1-10. Because He willingly accomplished God’s will “we have been sanctified through the offering of the body of Jesus Christ once for all” (Heb 10:10).
What if God would not have judged those who raged against His Anointed (Ps 2)? God’s anger was out of love for us!
Again, why were the Israelites told to utterly destroy the people living in Canaan? This is the comment on Num 33:52 in the Life Application Study Bible (2007):
- God was stamping out the wickedness of an extremely sinful nation. The Canaanites brought on their own punishment. Idol worship expressed their deepest evil desires. It ultimately led to the worship of Satan and the total rejection of God.
- God was using Moses and Israel to judge Canaan for its sins in fulfilment of the prophecy in Genesis 9:25.
- God wanted to remove all trace of heathen beliefs and practices from the land. He did not want his people to mix or compromise with idolatry in any way.
And the ESV Study Bible (2008) has the following comments on Josh 6:17 where we read that Jericho should be doomed by the LORD to destruction:
Though such total destruction may be offensive to modern sensibilities, the Bible insists that the total destruction of Jericho was commanded by the Lord Himself (Deut. 20:16-17), and it gives evidence of God’s judgment on the terrible sin of the Canaanites. This order to destroy every living thing was not a license to kill indiscriminately in other warfare, because cities outside the Land of Promise were to be treated differently (Deut. 20:10-15). Rather, it was intended to punish the Canaanites (whose iniquity had become complete; cf. Gen. 15:16) and to protect the Israelites from falling into idolatry and apostasy (Deut. 7:1-6).
Again, what about innocent children? We would say that the loss of innocent family members who belong to ungodly rebels was punishment on the wicked ones and not on the innocents. In relation to Babylon – and now we speak about the absolute wickedness – loss of their children means no future, including no future soldiers, for Babylon. That is what we learn from Ps 137. Babylon, who had destroyed Jerusalem, had to be destroyed itself in order that the Persians could send Israel home where the Messiah would be born. And regarding the end of time we learn that there is no future for those who revolt against God and His anointed ones. Our God is still “a consuming fire” (Heb 12:29). Bulwark Babylon will be made desolate, but the bride of Christ will celebrate (Rev 18-19).
And when the author of Ps 104 ends his psalm with “May sinners be consumed from the earth, and the wicked be no more” (Ps 104:35) then he asked for the removal of God’s enemies whose desire it was to destroy God’s beautiful creation. Also here the OT violence was not goal in itself. The LORD hates those who love violence (Ps 11:5). The divine violence was not a goal, but a means to sweep away all ungodly violence on the road to the Messiah. The Biblical violence was a liberated violence and in the service of the peace in Christ.
We don’t hate people for whom or what they are. We should even love our enemies (Matt 5:44). Hatred is forbidden (see Lord’s Day 40). When David in Ps 139 says that he hates God’s enemies he didn’t hate them because they were his enemies, but because they hated His Father in heaven and despised Him. David prayed, out of love for God and consistent with His fair justice, that the Almighty God would stop the “bloodthirsty” enemies who rebelled against Him, and raged against His people from whom the Messiah would come, and so raged against the Messiah Himself (Ps 2:2). Compare David’s prayer with what he prayed in the next psalm:
Deliver me, O LORD, from evil men; preserve me from violent men, who plan evil things in their heart. Keep me, O LORD, from the hands of the wicked. Do not grant, O LORD, the desires of the wicked; do not further his wicked scheme, lest they be exalted.Psalm 140:1, 4, 8
To what extent are the OT penalties still relevant for us today? Today God’s people don’t fight against heathen nations since Christ has come and has conquered His arch enemy. Today those who were near (Israel) and those who were afar off (the nations) both have access by one Spirit to the Father (Eph 2:1-18). Today, as fighting knights, we fight spiritually with the sword of the Spirit, God’s Word, always praying in the Spirit (Eph 6:17-18). Also today we pray for the fall of Babylon (re Ps 137), and the fall of the abortion clinics (re Ps 139).
Further, we should realise that, on the way to the Messiah, God’s own people, from whom the Messiah would come, had to be holy. Therefore the punishment on sins like Sabbath desecration, adultery, homosexual intercourse and blasphemy (cf the son of Shelomith) were severe. Today we no longer enforce the death penalty for those sins.
We take into account that Israel was God’s people, and was called to live holy lives. The civil and the spiritual were intertwined, something that does not apply (or at least ought not to apply) to the church and the civil government as we know it today.Douma, p 238
The church government rules according to the Spiritual order as taught in Scripture (see BC, Art 30) and leaves the final ‘death penalty’ with the Lord. Vengeance belongs to the Lord (Deut 23:35; Rom 12:19; Heb 10:30). And the civil government should rule by civil laws and policies (see BC, Art 36) according to the Biblical principle that punishment should fit the crime: eye for eye, tooth for tooth (Lev 24:20). That’s what we still learn from the OT regulations aimed at fair and controlled retribution.
Regarding the formula eye for eye, tooth for tooth we read in the comments of the New Geneva Study Bible:
Designed to curb exaggerated revenge (cf. Gen. 4:24), this formula vividly expressed the principle that punishment should be proportionate to the offense. It seems not to have been enforced literally (Ex. 21:26, 27; Deut 19:21). Jesus’ opposition to the misuse of this phrase (Matt. 5:38) involved, not an abrogation of this principle of equivalence, but a call to temper its application in light of the love commandment (19:18; cf. Matt. 7:12), in the interest of the kingdom (Matt. 5:10-12), and in the knowledge of God’s coming wrath (Rom. 12:17-21; cf. Deut.32:35).
Korah, Dothan and Abiram
Back to Ps 106:7 based on Numbers 16 where Korah, Dathan and Abiram rebelled against Moses and Aaron striving for the power of the priesthood. They had opened their mouth against God on high, and now the earth opened its mouth to take them down. And with this God protected. His people. What if the LORD had permitted the rebellion of Korah, Dathan and Abiram? We read that they had an enormous influence. What if they had sidelined Moses, the only one with whom God spoke face to face and to whom He listened when he pleaded for the people? What if they had sidelined Aaron, the only one who was allowed to enter into God’s presence for the atonement of the people?
Imagine the situation where there was no intercession by Moses anymore; no atonement made by Aaron. Yes, the LORD opened the road to swallow the revolutionaries in order to keep the road open to the only One who could intercede for us; the only One who could make atonement for us. God listened to Moses’ intercession and accepted Aaron’s sacrifice because of the coming Messiah, Jesus Christ.
Also here, in the desert, there was time for repentance. As we read in Num 16:16: And Moses said to Korah, “Tomorrow...” Tomorrow! Yes, there was time to repent and to ask for forgiveness. But the ringleaders went on and on, till the LORD stopped them.
In order to get the redemptive historical message of Numbers 16 we compare Scripture with Scripture. First of all, let’s compare the OT and NT leadership. In the time of Numbers 16 God spoke with Moses face to face (cf Num 12:8). After Pentecost He speaks through all of us by His Holy Spirit. In the time of Numbers 16 only Aaron could enter in God’s presence in the Most Holy Place. After Pentecost we are all temples of the Holy Spirit. The OT leadership was more tutoring: to take the people by the hand. The NT leadership is explained in Eph 4: the special office bearers equip the members of the congregation to the ministry of service and upbuilding of the congregation, while pointing to Christ, the only Head of the church.
Further, we learn from 2 Tim 2:19 that the solid foundation of God has this seal: “The Lord knows those who are His,” and, “Let everyone who names the name of Christ depart from iniquity.” The first inscription is a quote from Numbers 16:5 where we read in our English translation: Tomorrow morning the LORD will show who is His. The Septuagint (Greek translation) of this verse reads: The LORD knows who are His. According to 2 Tim 2:19 this phrase from Num 16:5 is one of the two inscriptions on the solid foundation which carries God’s church: The Lord knows those who are His. He makes clear who are His and what will happen with those who undermine the truth and overthrow the faith of others.
The second inscription according to 2 Tim 2:19 is “Let everyone who names the name of Christ depart from iniquity”. So, next to the promise “The Lord knows those who are His”, there is the obligation to depart from the revolution. See Num 16:24, where Moses had to say to the congregation, “Get away from the tents of Korah, Dathan and Abiram!” i.e. in NT words, reject rebellious teaching.
Speaking about rebellious teaching, it’s exactly in this context that Jude mentioned Korah in his Letter together with Cain and Balaam (Jude :11). False teachers who rebel against God and desire to be their own master, will be condemned.
- Don’t go the way of Cain who rebelled against God’s way regarding his chosen brother.
- Don’t run greedily in the error of Balaam who rebelled against God’s way regarding God’s chosen people.
- Don’t perish in the rebellion of Korah who rebelled against God’s way regarding the chosen leader.
So, when we take into account the redemptive historical line in Scripture, focusing on the flow from OT to NT, and when we compare Scripture with Scripture, especially when we read. Num 16 in the context of 2 Tim 2:19 and Jude verse 11, then a NT message of Numbers 16 is: False teachers, who rebel against God and desire to be their own master, will be condemned.
Can you sing this?
Let’s come back to our first question. Can we sing Ps 106:7? Or, for that matter, Ps 68:8, 104:8, 137:4, 139:12 and other psalms? Rev B Luiten, in Una Sancta (2012) stressed that we should sing the OT Psalms in NT light:
There are no songs with greater depth than the Psalms, but they do have a fairly high threshold. Singing them requires knowledge, faith, and a growth of insight. Psalms about Egypt, Canaan, Zion and Jerusalem, about the promises of prosperity, freedom, fertility, earthly glory and victory over the nations call upon a capacity to translate into a New Testament perspective.
Yes, the redemptive history didn’t stop with the Psalms. They need careful explanation. All who conduct the worship service, please, explain to the congregation the redemptive historical meaning of the psalms you ask them to sing, and tell them why you have chosen them. That will definitely help us to sing the Psalms more consciously. Especially when we sing them in understandable English from the Authorised Provisional Version.