Updated: Dec 1, 2020
There's an order to it
First things first, when answering this question for people in your life, you need to be clear (to yourself mainly) that you cannot make the violence we find in the Bible seem okay, as if, once explained your brothers or kids or coworkers will suddenly say something like, “oh in that case, violence is wonderful.” I’m serious. All we can do is to show the people in our lives that the violence we do find in the Bible makes sense.
This is what I mean.
FIRST - In the Old Testament, people were not struggling with the question “is God real?” Not at all. They were convinced of the reality of the supernatural. Instead, the question was “which god should have my allegiances?” So right off the bat you have to accept that it was about which one, and not is there one?
And how did they make the decision as to which god or deity to follow? Well, it almost always came down to which god was the most powerful. Which makes sense.
Let’s think about this. In the ancient world the only thing stopping bandits, brigands, thugs, warring tribes - you name it - from riding over to your village or town and doing violence to you was that you had a stronger, more powerful lord, someone who could and was proven to be able to defeat your enemies on the battlefield. And the same reasoning held true in the spiritual realm.
Which god was powerful enough to hold back the storms, or bring us good crops this year or even fight off the neighbouring powers almost always came down to which deity was the most powerful.
Essentially, this is the story playing quietly in the background of 1 Kings 18, where the prophet Elijah taunts the priests of baal to call upon their god and show his power. It is also the backdrop to the exodus as the true God does battle against the deities of Egypt through the ten plagues. And of course, the examples could be multiplied. The point is that violence proved power, and that was almost always the first criterion considered when deciding which god to follow.
SECOND - The violence required by God in the Old Testament was almost always an exercise in the lex talionis or the law of retaliation, otherwise expressed as ‘an eye for an eye, tooth for a tooth.’ In a world where a single act of violence could trigger all out tribal warfare such as we see in the horrific episode in Genesis 34, (where the lex talionis is ignored following the rape of Dinah), God’s requirement to only respond in kind and number was a revolutionary step in morality. No more wiping out entire cities or peoples because of some particular moral injustice. No more passing down vendettas to future generations based on individual slights years previous. The response would still be violent but it would begin to be tempered and brought more and more into the realm of justice, where passions have little say.
THIRD - The ancients believed much more strongly than we do in representationalism, which is the belief that an individual can represent (to greater or lesser degrees) the group or people that they come from.
This is how we form stereotypes and this is how we reason, extrapolating from the particular / individual person to form general conclusions about groups. This is also what is behind that curious behaviour of some immigrants who feel the need to praise their country of origin highly even as they feel compelled to leave it. They are not trying to insult the new country that they are learning to call their home, not at all. What they are trying to do is to assert that they too have value because after all - now notice the representationalism here - if they come from a strong, healthy, intelligent people then they too must be so as that people’s representative.
In the Bible too, you can find representationalism almost at every turn. The Jews of Jesus’ time will claim that they come from Abraham, that is to say, that he represents them and vice versa. And since Abraham was a man of faith so must they be seen.
Adam and Eve can represent all of humanity and lose what we all need to live in God’s presence thereby requiring us to be saved.
And if a culture or people begins to represent sin then the ancient mindset simply extended the same reasoning, that is, the sinner must be wiped out just as sin should be.
SO THERE YOU HAVE IT
The choice of which god to follow, the lex talionis and of course representationalism all make sense of the violence we find in the Bible. We may not like it but it is reasonable.
So the next time others try to stop you in your evangelizing tracks to point out what they consider is the death blow to a religion that professes a God of love, simply say, "I'm so glad you asked because it is really is fascinating..."
Have a great day friends,