“..in the cities of these peoples that the LORD your God is giving you as an inheritance, you shall not leave alive anything that breathes. But you shall utterly destroy them… as the LORD your God has commanded you” (Deut 20:16-17)
“Now go, attack the Amalekites and totally destroy all that belongs to them. Do not spare them; put to death men and women, children and infants, cattle and sheep, camels and donkeys.'” (1 Samuel 15:3)
There can be no disputing that this violent portrayal of God is incompatible with the merciful God revealed in Christ who commands us to love our enemies:
“Love your enemies, do good to them, and lend to them without expecting to get anything back. Then your reward will be great, and you will be children of the Most High, because he is kind to the ungrateful and wicked. Be merciful, just as your Father is merciful.” (Luke 6:35-36)
The question arises as to how do we deal with this? Are both portrayals accurate? Is God inconsistent?
In seeking to merge the two pictures of God, many resort to the notion that because God created us he can do as he pleases with us (with the sub-text that, apparently, death wasn’t such a big deal back then). But there’s something unsatisfactory in that, and most of today’s younger generation get that. Genocide is an atrocity. It is a monstrous act of aggression, devoid of mercy. There is no situation in which we can sanction it and claim to be followers of Jesus Christ. So how can God our Father, of whom Christ is the exact imprint, not just sanction genocide but actually command it? We need an intelligent answer.
God doesn’t change. So if God used to sanction genocide and God doesn’t change then…. we have a problem. Or is genocide something that God used to command but now God has “reformed” his ways?
Perhaps what is wrong is how we read the Old Testament. Perhaps we have treated the Bible, including all Old Testament sayings, as God’s definitive “Word”. We have forgotten that the Bible is not the Word of God; Jesus is! We have given the written word a status beyond it’s intention: to point us to Christ Jesus. Brian Zahnd illustrates it this way…
“There was a book sent by God whose name was the Bible. It came as a witness to the Light, It was not the Light but came to bear witness to the Light, so that all might believe in Him.”
“The Bible is not the perfect revelation of God, Jesus is. Jesus is the only perfect theology. Perfect theology is not a system of theology, perfect theology is a person. Perfect theology is not found in abstract thought; perfect theology is found in the Incarnation. Perfect theology is not a book, perfect theology is the life that Jesus lived. What the Bible does infallibly and inerrantly is point us to Jesus, just like John the Baptist did.”
The OT tells the story of Israel coming to know the living God, and it’s a progressive story, but the story doesn’t stop until we arrive at Jesus. Jesus is God’s complete and final Word. And so we desperately need to learn how to (re-)read the Old Testament in the light of Christ.
For more on this topic, I heartily recommend Brian Zahnd’s “Sinners in the Hands of a Loving God”
and also Greg Boyd’s “Cross Vision” (or the lengthier “Crucifixion of the Warrior God”)