We had a question from a reader on the previous week’s article about the warfare and the violence in the Old Testament. If you have any questions about any of the articles or any questions about Orthodoxy in general, go to the “Contact” section of the website and we’ll do our best to provide you with an answer from the author of the article. This can also be done anonymously, and the response will be in an article like this one. Personal questions should, first and foremost, be put before a spiritual father and not a university Orthodox fellowship.
Turning to the Old Testament, much of the imagery is of destruction with God destroying the sinful and the violent so that salvation in Christ might be achieved. Many of the stories can seem very confronting to a modern reader. How could a loving God do such things? How is this the same God?
However, there was no other way for God to proceed in a violent world. The enemies of the tribes of Israel in Exodus, Numbers and Joshua were enemies of God. These were not simply human wars, but means by which the might of God had to be shown. God could not simply lose to the soldiers of the false gods and demons such as Baal, Ashtoreth and Ishtar.
It was also necessary for the people of Israel to be shown that God was the one, true God. This has been done through His power. These displays of strength serve another purpose, as by showing God’s power we can see the extent of God’s mercy. We know that He has the power through the stories of the Old Testament, but also know that despite having this power and that despite the extent of our sins as a people, He does not destroy us in His mercy.
The Old Testament is also used to enable us to fear God. This violence gives us a motivation to repent of our sins and lead us to live spiritual lives. Proverbs 9:10 states that the beginning of wisdom is the fear of God, and the spiritual life is the life of wisdom. Conversely, when we fear God we have no fear of earthly punishments. The Three Youths in Babylon did not fear Nebuchadnezzar and the martyrs did not fear earthly death.
We cannot look on the events of the Old Testament with our post-Enlightenment, humanistic tinged glasses. Aside from the fact that this viewpoint is the cause of the modern trend towards atheism and the resulting decline in morality, we can see that those times were violent both through the Old Testament and through a cursory examination of ancient history.
Additionally, there is a spiritual dimension to the violence and warfare of the Old Testament. Many of these stories are read allegorically, showing us the violence of the spiritual struggle. Many of the Fathers interpret these violent episodes in this way. St Nilus, looking at Psalm 136 where the infants of Babylon are taken and dashed against the rock, tells us that these infants symbolise the small passions which cannot be allowed to grow within us and thus must be destroyed.
Finally, we remember that these events were needed so that there could be a Virgin Mary, who could be able to give birth to the Christ. There had to be an environment created where the Theotokos could be raised in such a way that she would eventually become the Theotokos. Because of this all humanity could be saved, even those who had fought against the people of Israel when they tried to reach the Promised Land. Through this historical course of events, violent as it was, Christ took away all of the sins of humanity.