The violence of the Old Testament is one of the most challenging issues Christians face when interpreting Old Testament texts. We are so used to viewing everything through the lens of the Gospel that it makes no sense that God would command the death of anyone, especially young people. How do we reconcile this to the words of Jesus, who commanded us to love our enemies and pray for them?
It is important to remember that the Old Testament was written over a thousand-year period by hundreds of people. While we regard all Scripture as inspired by God, we also need to remember that it was written by individuals who still understood the world through their own cultural lens. Part of the process of interpretation includes sifting through this to discover the religious truth. For example, in the New Testament, St. Paul writes that slaves should be obedient to their masters “with fear and trembling” (Ephesians 6:5). At times this passage was interpreted as a divine endorsement of slavery, which is absolutely false. Paul was concerned with personal holiness for everyone, including slaves (he also urged masters to treat slaves with kindness). Paul was a product of his times and he would not have thought to question the institution of slavery itself. Since then, the Church has taken a strong stance against slavery, regarding it as a gross violation of human dignity. From the passage just cited we are to glean the religious truth, that we are called to holiness and humility whatever our state in life, be it as leader or follower.
With that in mind, it is easier to see that in Old Testament texts, the authors — though inspired by God — would have believed that conquering the enemies of Israel would have involved following the standard rules of war (either enslaving or destroying them). In praying with these texts, we do not need to agree that this was God’s will. In fact, as we move through the Old Testament period, we see a growing awareness among the people of Israel that they were not chosen by God to conquer other nations, but, rather, God chose them to lead all nations to worship Him in peace. By the time we get to the end of the Old Testament period, they understand that it is their mission to communicate God’s universal love for humankind: “The foreigners who join themselves to the Lord, ministering to him and becoming his servants…them will I bring to my holy mountain and make joyful in my house of prayer” (Isaiah 56: 6-7). This prophecy was fulfilled in the mission of Jesus, who declared that His Kingdom was for all people, and who praised the faith of Samaritans and others who were not of the Jewish faith.
It is the Gospel through which we interpret every passage in the Bible. Jesus Himself gave us the example of how to do this: “You have heard it said, ‘An eye for an eye and a tooth for a tooth.’ But I say to you, offer no resistance to the one who is evil. When one strikes you on your right cheek, turn the other to him as well” (Matthew 5: 38-39). It is through this lens that we are to interpret the more challenging passages of the Old Testament.
Father Scott Jones is pastor of Sts. Teresa and Bridget Parish in St. Louis.