Skip to main content

I’ve been doing some writing lately, and a nagging topic keeps coming up in one way or another and won’t leave me alone.

Last year, I put up a few posts on divine violence against Canaanites in the Old Testament (here, here, here, here, and more recently here), which is enough of a topic to keep you busy.

But what about God’s retributive violence–where God exacts swift judgment in the form of physical brutality against his own people for disobeying? Some of the better-known incidents are:

  • After sending Moses to Egypt to lead the Israelites out of slavery, God comes after Moses to kill him, apparently (the text is not super clear) for failing to circumcise his son (Exodus 4:24).
  • After the Israelites build the golden calf (Exodus 32), God commands the sons of Levi to go through the camp and kill “your brother, your friend, and your neighbor” (v. 27).
  • Achan and his family are stoned and burned because Achan kept some of the booty from the sack of Jericho (Joshua 7).
  • Israelites who worship Baal of Peor are to be impaled in order for God’s fierce anger to be turned away (Numbers 25). Later in that chapter, Phinehas runs a spear through an Israelite man and his Midianite wife, and his “zeal” turns back God’s wrath against the Israelites.

The question that is as old as the Christian faith is: “How does all this square with how Jesus speaks of God?” The keyword here is forgivenessThe issue is not simply that Jesus says we should forgive each other.

Rather, by forgiving each other we reflect the heart of God.

For example:

  • In the parable of the lost son, the son “deserved” the punishment of his father, but instead his father runs out to meet his returning son, ready to forgive before even being asked  (Luke 15). He even gets a party.
  • Peter’s question about how many times to forgive a brother (seven times?) is answered by Jesus with an emphatic “seventy times seven” (Matthew 18:21-22). In the parable that follows (vv. 23-35)–the parable of the unforgiving servant–God’s punishment is directed toward those who fail to forgive.
  • In Gethsemane, Jesus rebukes Peter for retaliating against the soldiers, and on the cross asks God’s forgiveness for those who put him there (Luke 23).

Of course, for both the Old and New Testaments, there are other examples we could look at. But the point remains: If Jesus and the Father are one (John 10:30), how can we hold all this together? How can these two views of God be reconciled? Are they even supposed to be reconciled?

One answer will not do, and we need to nip it in the bud: “God can do whatever he wants to, and that includes mercilessly punishing sinners among his own people by killing them.” That misses the entire point. The issue here is how God himself is portrayed differently in the Old Testament and then in the New.

The larger question here is: “What is the relationship between how God is portrayed in Israel’s story vis-a-vis the Gospel?” God’s retributive violent judgment on his own people is simply one window into exploring the larger question.

And a very practical dimension of all this: Which of these portraits of God are we most drawn to and how is that worked out in our daily interactions with others? How do our actions toward others reflect our theology?  Do we want to get even? Is tit-for-tat our rule to live by, or turn the other cheek?

This blog was first posted in May 2013.

Pete Enns, Ph.D.

Peter Enns (Ph.D., Harvard University) is Abram S. Clemens professor of biblical studies at Eastern University in St. Davids, Pennsylvania. He has written numerous books, including The Bible Tells Me So, The Sin of Certainty, and How the Bible Actually Works. Tweets at @peteenns.