In my conversations with non-Christians and agnostics over the years, the Old Testament has always been one of the greatest points of friction. They would read about constant wars and killing; about how God commanded Israel, the so-called chosen people, to destroy other nations. And they would conclude that religion was about war, saying to the effect; “If God is so hateful and wrathful, then I want nothing to do with him.”
And from a cursory glance, this impression seems reasonable. After all, is not the Old Testament filled with continual war and killing? And did God not command Israel to kill and destroy other nations? Is there, therefore, any moral continuity between the Old and New Testaments? This question, it seems, has been a source of confusion and frustration for potential converts—-and has even confounded many Christians themselves (some sects of Christianity even expunge the Old Testament completely).
Thankfully, the answer to this question is found in the pages of the Old Testament itself. One need only to read it in full to see it more clearly. In fact, upon reading the Old Testament, quite a different picture emerges than merely a sea of blood and death. Yes, there was violence in the Old Testament. But who was causing that violence to begin with? Just as people want to blame Christianity for the crusades, few realize how it started—with an aggressor on one side, attacking a victim on the other.
In fact, the Old Testament is, in large part, all about victimhood. From the very beginning, Israel started as victims, as slaves in a foreign land. And throughout Israel’s flight from Egypt, they were constantly subjected to outside aggression from other nations. It was the outside nations, in other words, who waged war on them. All they wanted to do was pass through; they just wanted to get to the promised land, to the land “flowing with milk and honey.” But the other nations would not let them. Moses even politely asked the others nations, “Now let us pass through your land. We will not pass through field or vineyard, neither will we drink water from a well…we will not turn aside to the right hand or to the left until we have passed through your territory.” (Num 20:17) But what did Edom say in return? “You shall not pass through, lest I come out with the sword against you.” Again, Israel sent messengers to the Amonites, “Let me pass through your land; we will not turn aside into field or vineyard; we will not drink the water of a well…until we have passed through your territory.” (Num 21:21) But what did the Amonites do in return? They went out and attacked Israel. And what happened in Bashan? The very same thing: They wouldn’t let Israel pass, and instead came out to destroy them. Even hundreds of years later, and after many victories, Israel was accused of unjustly attacking neighboring nations (as is often the case, the victims are often accused of being the aggressors), and Jephthah, one of the judges of Israel, had to correct the record, saying; we are not the aggressors, we are the victims! (see Judges 11:12-20)
Even after Israel reached the promised land, they were still subjected to continual attacks and threats of destruction, from kings, kings servants, and from neighboring lands. In fact, story after story of the Old Testament is, essentially, stories of victimhood. It is about faith against all odds, when all hope seems lost. It is about trusting in God’s protection (and in doing so, receiving even greater reward). From Joseph’s betrayal by his brothers, to Israel’s slavery in Egypt, to Daniel and the lion’s den, to David and Goliath, to Esther, Ezra, Judith, and Maccabees, the Old Testament is filled with stories of long-suffering and affliction, of trusting in more than what can be measured by the eyes. As David told his enemies; You come after me with swords and spears, but I have God on my side.
And should it be any surprise that the whole world seemed to want to destroy Israel? Remember, the world was not a pretty place back then. Most people on the earth were entirely corrupt and wicked. When you have civilizations who practice human sacrifice—even sacrificing of one’s own children—can you expect anything else from such a people? Do people who burn their children alive sound like a peaceful reasonable people? God even repeatedly said, do not do as they do; “When you come into the land which the Lord your God gives you, you shall not learn to follow the abominable practices of those nations. There shall not be found among you anyone who burns his son or his daughter as an offering…” (Deut. 18:9, see also 1 Kings 14:24, 2 Kings 16:3, 2 Kings 17:17)
You see, rather than destroy the earth again for man’s wickedness, God chose to abide by His promise and do something different. He chose a small tribe of people who He would nurture and raise by His own hand; a tribe that began as a family and would grow into an entire nation; a tribe that would be the moral barometer of the world. Where other nations practiced temple prostitution and human sacrifice, God was teaching Israel about compassion to the stranger, about caring for widows and orphans, about treating foreigners as brothers (“Love the foreigner therefore; for you were once foreigners in the land of Egypt”–Duet. 10:19), about kindness, honesty and integrity—all the values we uphold as dear. Israel was the smallest of all nations, the weakest and most helpless of all. But they were God’s chosen people. “For…the Lord has chosen you to be a people for his own possession, out of all the people that are on the face of the earth. It was not because you were more in number than any other people…for you were the fewest of all peoples; but it is because the Lord loves you…that the Lord has brought you out with a mighty hand, and redeemed you from the house of bondage, from the hand of Pharaoh.” Israel was God’s chosen people. And because of that special election, they were guaranteed victory, so long as they persevered in faith through trials. Would they trust that God would lead them safely through to the promised land? Or would they turn back to their old ways? Would they love their neighbor and care for widows and orphans, or would they abuse their neighbors as the other nations did, as Sodom and Gomorrah did?
Many people assume that the commandment of love and mercy began with Christ in the New Testament. But it is a constant and ever-developing theme in the Old Testament as well. Even as far back as the pages of Leviticus, we see God establishing the law of love on the hearts of his people, “You shall not hate your brother in your heart, but you shall reason with your neighbor…You shall not take vengeance or bear any grudge…but your shall love your neighbor as yourself; I am the Lord” (Lev. 19:17) The journey from external ritual to the heart, in fact, began in the Old Testament. As the Lord repeated to Israel time and time again, “it is not sacrifice and burnt offerings that God desires, but a humble and contrite heart.” And these messages are repeated to Israel throughout the Old Testament. Be kind to the stranger. Welcome the traveler. Do not oppress your neighbor nor covet his goods. Do not kill, steal, or lie. Be upright and just, honest, patient, and faithful. Do not do as the other nations do, in other words, and God will reward you.
In no other document from this period of history do we find such a message of love. Try as you might, but you will not find it. For its time, the Old Testament is a diamond in the rough. It is morally ten steps ahead of anything that existed at the time. And for this reason, it should be cherished and reverenced. When we read its pages, we should always keep this in mind. When we read about Abraham and Isaac, for example, we should not see a hateful God asking a man to sacrifice his own son. Rather, we should see a merciful God showing, instead, that He is not like other gods—that instead of making Abraham sacrifice his only son, rather provides the lamb Himself (and indeed, becoming the lamb Himself, in atonement for all sin). We see a God who, rather than destroy a people for their sin, will later “destroy” Himself on their behalf, and on behalf of all mankind. We see, in other words, an unfolding of love in its highest form, which culminates on a cross.