Why does the Old Testament portray violence?

Author: BibleAsk Team

The Old Testament and Violence

Understanding why the Old Testament portrays violence requires a comprehensive examination of historical contexts, theological themes, and the diverse literary genres found within its pages.

1. Historical and Cultural Context:

A. Covenant and Land: The concept of covenant plays a central role in the Old Testament, particularly in the relationship between God and the people of Israel (Genesis 17:8). The Lord promises the land of Canaan to Israel after the inhabitant have filled their cup of iniquity (Genesis 15:16). The narratives often depict the Israelites’ military actions in their quest to possess the land promised to them by God if they are obedient. The book of Joshua, for example, details the conquest of Canaan.

B. Divine Judgment: In certain Old Testament passages, violence is portrayed as an expression of divine judgment. The conquest of Canaan is presented as a fulfillment of God’s judgment upon the wickedness of the indigenous nations. Deuteronomy 9:4-5 (NKJV) reflects this theme: God says to Israel, “Do not think in your heart, after the Lord your God has cast them out before you, saying, ‘Because of my righteousness the Lord has brought me in to possess this land’; but it is because of the wickedness of these nations that the Lord is driving them out from before you.” References to military campaigns and conquests are abundant in historical books like Joshua and Judges.

2. Theocracy:

A. Retributive Justice: The ancient nation of Israel was ruled directly by God in a theocratic system (civil and religious), the government contained legal codes, including the Mosaic Law found in the books of Exodus, Leviticus, Numbers, and Deuteronomy. These laws prescribed punishments for various offenses (Exodus 21:23-25).

B. Maintaining Social Order: The legal codes also aimed at maintaining social order and ensuring the welfare of the community. Punishments, including corporal and capital punishment, were seen as deterrents to crime. The severity of penalties underscored the seriousness of certain offenses and the importance of upholding justice.

3. Prophetic Warnings and Consequences:

A. Prophetic Oracles: The prophets in the Old Testament often delivered messages of warning and judgment. When addressing the moral and spiritual decline of the people, the prophets warned of the consequences, including the potential for violence and destruction. Isaiah 1:15-17 (NKJV) reflects this prophetic tone: “When you spread out your hands, I will hide My eyes from you; Even though you make many prayers, I will not hear. Your hands are full of blood. Wash yourselves, make yourselves clean; Put away the evil of your doings from before My eyes. Cease to do evil, learn to do good; seek justice, rebuke the oppressor; defend the fatherless, plead for the widow.”

B. Covenantal Infidelity: Prophetic literature frequently links the experiences of violence and adversity to the people’s failure to uphold their covenantal obligations. The consequences outlined by the prophets underscore the theological theme of divine discipline in response to covenantal infidelity (Hosea 4:12).

4. Literary and Symbolic Expression:

A. Symbolic Warfare Language: The Old Testament employs language that can be understood in both literal and symbolic senses. Certain passages use militaristic and violent imagery as a metaphor for spiritual conflicts. Ephesians 6:12 (NKJV) captures this idea in the New Testament, drawing on the language of spiritual warfare: “For we do not wrestle against flesh and blood, but against principalities, against powers, against the rulers of the darkness of this age, against spiritual hosts of wickedness in the heavenly places.”

B. Literary Genre: Different literary genres are present in the Old Testament, ranging from historical narrative to poetry and prophecy. Some texts, particularly poetic passages like the imprecatory psalms, express intense emotions, including calls for divine judgment and vengeance (Psalms 137:8-9). While these imprecatory psalms express deep pain and anger, they should be understood within the context of lamentation and the human experience of suffering.

5. Theological Themes:

A. God’s Holiness and Justice: The portrayal of violence in the Old Testament is often tied to theological concepts of God’s holiness and justice. God’s holiness necessitates a response to sin, and justice, as an expression of God’s righteousness, requires accountability for wrongdoing (Exodus 34: 5-7).

B. Covenantal Faithfulness: The Old Testament emphasizes the faithfulness of God to His covenant promises, which includes both blessings for obedience and consequences for disobedience. The violence depicted in certain narratives is seen as a response to the people’s breach of the covenant (Deuteronomy 28:15-68).

6. Transformation and Redemption:

A. Redemption Narrative: While the Old Testament contains narratives of violence, it is also a story of redemption and God’s desire to reconcile with humanity. The overarching narrative points to the need for transformation, repentance, and the ultimate redemptive work of God (Isaiah 35:4; 53).

B. New Covenant: In the New Testament, the literal nation of Israel is destroyed by the Romans and the believers become spiritual Israel, who are governed by the civil powers of the countries they live in (Romans 13:1).


In the Old Testament, the nation of Israel was under a theocratic system where God was both the religious and civil Judge. And we find passages that depict historical battles, legal codes, and divine judgments that naturally involve violence. In the New Testament, the literal nation of Israel disintegrates by the Romans in 70 AD and Christians becomes spiritual Israel, governed by the civil powers of their countries.

A related articles: https://bibleask.org/why-did-god-command-israel-to-destroy-the-canaanites/

In His service,
BibeAsk Team

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