There is no denying that there are some unsettling passages in the Old Testament. I remember the first time I read Psalm chapter 137, verse 9, where the psalmist calls the one who dashes the babies of Babylon against the rocks blessed.
Perhaps more confronting is when the instruction for violence seems to come from Yahweh Himself, as in the instructions to leave no survivors when attacking Canaanite towns (Joshua chapter 9, verse 24).
Yet, starting with the knowledge that God declares Himself to be loving and faithful, slow to anger and full of mercy and compassion, (Exodus chapter 34, verse 6), forces me to reread these sections of Israel’s Scriptures and revaluate what they are saying.
When taken at face value, I can see where people can get a very different idea of who God is. I had a non-Christian friend quote a Bible verse to me he had heard quoted in a violent movie. His follow up question was to ask if that verse was from the Old Testament. His inference was that the God of the Old Testament was vengeful and full of wrath, while the God Christians believe in is the loving, merciful God of the New Testament. I think this is a common misconception, but how can I explain the apparent contrast?
The same gracious God
A closer look at the book of Joshua in particular, painted a different picture for me this week. The story of Rahab is an amazing example of God’s grace, which shows that the God of the Old Testament is the same compassionate God who sent Jesus to redeem us. Here is a foreign woman with a sinful past whom God saves out of Jericho as it is destroyed. Not only that, her name is written into the genealogy of Jesus in Matthew’s opening chapter.
This is the God I know, who seeks and saves the lost (Luke chapter 19, verse 10). This is the same God who spoke words of salvation to the criminal on the cross (Luke chapter 23, verse 43). This is an example of God’s salvation being given, not because we are be good enough, but because of His great mercy towards those who look to Him for help.
Another example of God’s compassion is seen in the deception of the Gibeonites and their resulting escape from annihilation, which seems at first to be just a fault of the Israelites. Taken in light of God’s declaration that He is loving and faithful however, shows that this is another evidence of God’s mercy.
The Gibeonites were not honest or deserving, yet they knew they deserved God’s judgement and faced the reality of its coming. They went to the Israelites, the mediators of God’s presence in the world at that time, and asked to be spared in the best way they could think of. These were people looking to God for mercy and He gave it. This is confirmed when God uses Israel to save them from the Ammonites (Joshua chapter 10, verses 1-15).
A deeper appreciation of the gospel
Reading about the Israelites taking the land of Canaan again with the knowledge of God’s consistent character keenly in my mind has given me a deeper appreciation for the gospel. Comprehending what I am saved from increases my wonder at what Christ has done. I see the same God in Israel’s Scriptures as I do in the New Testament, extending mercy to anyone that will look to Him.
Such beauty is revealed as you read the text in this way, yet it does not take away the fact that so many were killed by the Israelites, and for me, I have to admit that there is still some inner conflict as I read such passages. Though the narrative increases my gratitude for what God has done, I still have questions.
A careful reading of the book of Joshua shows, that while Joshua succeed Moses as Israel’s leader, Joshua himself does not seem to have a successor. This, along with the fact that possession of the whole Promised Land is never quite completed, seems to point to something significant. It shows that the fullness of God’s plan could not be completed through a nation or a human leader. Jesus is true and greater successor of Joshua who brought about the fullness of God’s purposes when He took God's judgement upon Himself. This is something I take great comfort in, even though I don’t yet have all the answers.
Tom Anderson is pioneering www.haventogether.com, an online church plant supported by his in-person church, Catalyst, Ipswich. He has a young, growing family and enjoys playing backyard sport. Tom is a keen long-distance runner, averaging 21km each day last year. He has worked as a teacher for eleven years and enjoys perfecting a flat white on his home espresso machine. Tom would welcome a visit for a coffee some time… or an online catch-up via Zoom. See the Haven Together website to get in touch.