It’s not hard to find people on the Internet and in the media arguing that the Bible is a horrible, violent book, even going so far as to call it evil. These people use the space they have through whatever outlet to argue their case passionately and forcefully. Well, now I want to use the space that I have to argue the other way. I’ll warn you now that this is going to be blunt and uncompromising because I don’t want what I have to say to be diluted. You may agree with what I write, you may not, but I just want to get this out there and see what happens.
The world isn’t always a nice place. It isn’t now and it wasn’t millennia ago when the first books of the Bible were written. We’re plagued by war, famine, disease and poverty. Living in a little pocket of relative niceness in the wealthy West, it can be easy to forget that there are people going through a living Hell every day of their lives. Back in the ancient Near East, there were all those problems, as well as the added issue of boundaries and land disputes. We still have those, sure, but back then, pretty much everything was disputed by someone. The only time you could be sure of knowing where you lived was when you were in someone else’s empire (alright, that’s a bit of an exaggeration, but the point remains).
The Bible is a book written for, and about, people living in a hard, broken world. I would argue that this is especially the case for the Old Testament, whilst the New Testament is really strengthening people for struggles of a different kind (Eph. 6:12). Some of the stories in the books of history (1 &2 Kings, 1 & 2 Chronicles etc.) seem brutal and alien to us. Well, that’s because the world then would seem brutal and alien to us. I’d be far more worried about believing the Bible if it told a story about the Israelites’ endless peace and prosperity. The fact is, the Israelites were not the dominant people wandering around the Near East. They had to fight for every scrap of land they wanted. Not only that, they had to fight to defend their beliefs and their culture. The Israelites valued purity extremely highly – the law books tell us that. They were God’s people and it was their primary job to glorify his name. It may seem horrible to us that they went and slaughtered enemies in the name of God, but in many cases, that was the only way foreigners would come to fear the true God. In a disbelieving and pagan world, war was the only feasible way to make God known.
The Lord is a warrior; the Lord is his name. – Exodus 15:3
Many of the Old Testament laws also seem harsh to us. I believe that that’s partly because our modern standards are different to God’s standards, and partly because there was a need for a legal structure at that point in Israelite history. The law was there to maintain standards of purity in a material as well as a spiritual sense. That doesn’t really come into our consideration anymore, so it can be hard to come to terms with what God demanded of people in the Old Testament.
You’ll notice that what I’ve been talking about so far is very different to modern Christianity. That’s mostly because I’ve been dealing with the Old Testament and things changed a lot after Jesus. Jesus’ death met the demands of the law that we never could. Jesus took on the punishment for our sins and he took his place as a mediator on our behalf, a high priest atoning for our sins in the way that we never could. His life and death in the Roman Empire was very different to the lives of the Jews in the Near East prior to this. Through the empire, the apostles had a way of evangelising to both Jews and gentiles in a peaceful way. Jesus drew our attention to what’s going on in our hearts as well as outside our bodies, and the coming of the Holy Spirit at Pentecost empowered humans to operate on a spiritual level that had never been feasible before. The laws of cleanliness aren’t necessary anymore because Jesus took away our sin and the Holy Spirit has become our righteousness – it was not what we ate that determined where we stood with God, but our attitude and our faith.
I appreciate I had to wander into some theology there, but as well as looking at why parts of the Bible seem so horrible, I also wanted to offer an explanation for why Christians do things differently now. Some people will read this and think that I’m an idiot, or some violent, evil person who believes in a violent, evil God, but I think that my faith simply gives me a different perspective on this. Where some see violence and evil, I see violence that was necessary in a harsh world. I would say that it’s naive to react against something like Christianity because it has a violent past – that does not detract from the validity of the belief system.
The Bible is a book coming from that harsh time and I believe that a lot of its realism comes from its authors’ willingness to record the violence as it was, otherwise it would just be unbelievable. I think we can draw comfort from the fact that God does not ignore our struggles, and while many things have changed since the time of the Israelites in the Old Testament – culture, global relations, politics, theology – we who believe in the Lord God have the same objective: to glorify him above all else.