I don’t like the Old Testament. All that violence!
It is a common objection. Sometimes it is the worthy revulsion of a gentle soul; other times it is the ground of heresy. Early on, the church had to deal with those who would edit out the uncomfortable parts of God’s Word, and with others who went so far as to posit “two gods,” with the Old Testament the work of a bad one.
In short, I would argue that the violence of the OT makes the Bible more credible. It is not a string of pleasing fairy tales, but the history of God reclaiming a fallen race, working with us even in our ugliest behaviors.
Human change and progress is messy – we don’t reject medicine just because doctors used to “bleed patients of ill humors,” progressed to the marvels of neurosurgery, then regressed to the abortion racket.
So as we read the OT, we find the prophets calling the chosen people beyond beating down enemies for ethnic and national ends. It’s messy. Sometimes the people progress and other times they double down on self-interest and violence.
The Liturgy of the Hours included readings from Tobit 4* today,
That sounds positively… well… New Testament, right? It’s the Jesus-y kind of stuff we like. But there it is in the OT.
Elijah’s prophetic protege, Elisha, had the opportunity to massacre an invading army from – irony of ironies today – Syria. But he offered an alternative approach:
When an attendant of the man of God rose early in the morning and went out, an army with horses and chariots was all around the city. His servant said, ‘Alas, master! What shall we do?’ He replied, ‘Do not be afraid, for there are more with us than there are with them.’ Then Elisha prayed: ‘O Lord, please open his eyes that he may see.’ So the Lord opened the eyes of the servant, and he saw; the mountain was full of horses and chariots of fire all around Elisha. When the Arameans came down against him, Elisha prayed to the Lord, and said, ‘Strike this people, please, with blindness.’ So he struck them with blindness as Elisha had asked. Elisha said to them, ‘This is not the way, and this is not the city; follow me, and I will bring you to the man whom you seek.’ And he led them to Samaria.
As soon as they entered Samaria, Elisha said, ‘O Lord, open the eyes of these men so that they may see.’ The Lord opened their eyes, and they saw that they were inside Samaria. When the king of Israel saw them he said to Elisha, ‘Father, shall I kill them? Shall I kill them?’ He answered, ‘No! Did you capture with your sword and your bow those whom you want to kill? Set food and water before them so that they may eat and drink; and let them go to their master.’ So he prepared for them a great feast; after they ate and drank, he sent them on their way, and they went to their master. (2 Kings 6:16-23a NRSV)
The result of treating the enemy with mercy and generosity?
And the Arameans no longer came raiding into the land of Israel. (23b)
Well, at least until the next verse…
Some time later King Ben-hadad of Aram mustered his entire army; he marched against Samaria and laid siege to it. (24)
Like I said, it’s messy and not a straight line of progress. Christians understand the world to be “fallen,” estranged from God. Oh, heck, more honest than that: we are in rebellion against God. So humanistic models of inevitable progress are bunk.
But those who belong to God do progress, even in a world that is more “Old Testament” than we care to admit. Because the New Testament, written not in flowery script but in the blood of Christ, fulfills the prophets of the OT and the better way to which they pointed.
* Tobit shows up in the Catholic Bible’s Old Testament; it is in the Apocrypha (if at all) in Protestant Bibles. See what I mean? Messy.