5 things you should know about Old Testament violence

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The Bible is full of passages that we love. Words that comfort us in a dark time. Words that inspire us to live the way God designed us. Words that teach our hearts and amaze us.

But then there are also certain passages that it is difficult to swallow. They make us a little squeamish.

Passages like this, where Israel conquers Jericho:

“Then the people cried out, and the trumpets sounded. As soon as the people heard the sound of the trumpet, the people shouted with a loud cry, and the wall fell flat, so that the people went up into the city, each one straight ahead, and they took the city. So they delivered everything in the city to destruction, men and women, young and old, oxen, sheep and donkeys, with the edge of the sword. (Joshua 6: 20-21)

The fall of Jericho is often hailed as an iconic sign of God‘s victory through his people. But the scene itself was very violent. Israel completely destroyed everything that breathed. Moreover, God is the one who commanded and authorized this destruction of human life.

Why would God approve of such violence? To some, it may seem like a God-sanctioned crime against humanity. And this is not the only passage where we see this kind of thing. The book of Joshua contains several examples of such violence as Israel conquers the land promised to Abraham.

How does this fit in with our knowing that our God is a God of love?

Here are five things we should understand when reading about Old Testament violence.

1. Know the historical context.

The historical context is so important in understanding what was happening with Israel’s conquest of Jericho. Joshua’s author doesn’t give us much of that background because the original audience he wrote to was already aware of it.

Some people watch the destruction of Jericho and wonder why God would destroy these innocent, fun loving people. But these people were not innocent or liked to have fun. The people of Jericho have engaged in obscure practices.

Warning: it’s a bit graphic.

In Jericho, pagan sex worship was a regular practice. People used to go to the temple to do certain acts with prostitutes as worship. These prostitutes were probably not there of their own free will; they have been trafficked. Sexual slavery was a central part of Jericho’s economy and culture.

In other Canaanite cults, people were known to sacrifice their young children on stone altars that were heated by fire. They basically tortured their own babies to death for the gods to bless them.

These violent and heinous acts were part of the fabric of culture. They were celebrated by everyone in the community. This is what God needed to remove from the face of the earth.

2. Realize that these events are descriptive, not prescriptive.

While God exercised this judgment on Jericho, the story is not prescriptive. This means that we shouldn’t take it as a model for what we should be doing today. It was a very specific time in the history of Israel when God judged these people and took them out of the land that he had promised to Israel.

Anyone who uses a passage like this to justify some kind of violence against another person or group is not a follower of Jesus. Israel didn’t judge Jericho, God did. He only used Israel to do it. We cannot assume that God is using us to execute His judgment.

Moreover, everything in the story seems to indicate that Israel was very passive in this story:

  • God is the one who brought the people into the land by parting the Jordan (Joshua 3: 1-17).
  • God made his presence known by sending the commander of his army to meet Joshua (Joshua 5: 13-15).
  • And it was God who brought down the city walls (Joshua 6: 1-21).

Israel is not the main actor in this story, God is. This story is not about Israel against Jericho; it is about God against Jericho.

We do not have the power to judge and condemn; God alone does it. And that’s what we see happening in the destruction of a city like Jericho.

3. Know that God’s righteousness is perfect.

As difficult as it may be to come to terms with, we need to know that God’s righteousness is perfect. If God has passed judgment on a person or a city, we should know that his judgment is pure.

It is also a sobering reminder of God’s righteousness: what may seem hard to us is only what is right. Because of our own fall, the damaging and destructive nature of sin is often lost to us. This graphic judgment scene reminds us how seriously God takes sin.

Even still, we might start to wonder if everyone in the city of Jericho was really bad. What about those who were young, those who didn’t understand what was going on? To be honest, I don’t have a good answer for that.

But just because God takes someone’s earthly life by judgment does not necessarily mean that he has condemned their eternal soul. Perhaps there were some for whom God’s act of righteousness was also an act of grace.

For some, they may not yet have been brainwashed into all of this city’s bad practices. And by taking their life away from them, God saved them from the growth of all evil things that would have required judgment. Maybe God was showing them grace by bringing them out of this world.

4. Know that the invitation to the grace of God is addressed to all.

An invitation to the grace of God is always present. We see this in Rahab’s life. Rahab was a prostitute in the city of Jericho, but she put her faith in God because she recognized his power. This is what she said about the God of Israel:

“… For the Lord your God is God in the heavens above and on the earth below. ” (Joshua 2:11)

Because of Rahab’s faith, she and her whole family were spared the judgment. God loves to show grace. He will even give thanks to entire peoples.

The prophet Jonah knew this when God sent him to the Ninevites. The Ninevites were just as wicked as those in Jericho, and they were cruel and oppressive to the people of Israel. Jonah knew that if he preached to the Ninevites they could repent and God would not destroy them. So Jonah didn’t want to go because he wanted to see the Ninevites destroyed. He was upset that God was showing grace, even to his enemies.

But we were also enemies of God. And God showed us grace.

“For if, while we were enemies, we were reconciled to God through the death of his Son, much more so, now that we are reconciled, we will be saved by his life. ” (Romans 5:10)

5. Know that there are some things in the Bible that we may never be comfortable with.

Even with all of this, I still feel a bit squeamish when I read certain passages in the Old Testament where God orders the destruction of a city. And I don’t know if the discomfort will go away anytime soon.

And that’s okay because I know my understanding is limited. The way I view righteousness and goodness is marred by the fact that I am a fallen person. My mind and heart are darkened by my own sinful state. I look at justice through a dirty window.

But I know that God sees all of what I can only understand part of. And I know God enough that I can tell Him things that make me uncomfortable.

I know everything I need to know about God when I think of a bloodied cross and an empty tomb. All the righteousness and grace of God were fully on display. When Jesus hung on the cross, he took on the weight of righteousness that was meant for me. And at the same time, he invited me to enter into grace.

So while in the old days God used his people as agents of righteousness, Jesus’ followers today are agents of grace. We are called to invite others to the grace we experience in Jesus because Jesus took on all the weight of righteousness for us.


Dale chamberlain (M.Div) and his wife, Tamara, are authors and speakers passionate about the love and service of Jesus together. They enjoy having conversations and building community around the abundant life that Jesus has promised us. You can connect with Dale and Tamara at herandhymn.com.

Photo credit: GettyImages / tracygood1

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