God, incarnate in Jesus Christ, tells us to love our enemies. How does that fit with Old Testament commands to kill?
After Joshua 10 describes Joshua conquering city after city, it concludes: “He totally destroyed all who breathed, just as the Lord, the God of Israel, had commanded.” In more than 100 Old Testament passages, Yahweh commands people to kill other people.
How can all this Old Testament material be reconciled with God’s final revelation in Jesus?
An easy solution would be to say that these Old Testament texts have no authoritative relevance for New Testament Christians. But the same Lord Jesus who taught his disciples to love their enemies clearly shared the first-century Jewish — and then Christian — view that “all scripture is God-breathed” (2 Tim. 3:16). Jesus said, “Not the least stroke of a pen will by any means disappear from the Law until everything is accomplished” (Matt. 5:17-18).
Clearly Jesus taught that the Law and the Prophets were the authoritative Word of God. We dare not dismiss his teaching about the Hebrew Bible.
There have been various attempts to justify or at least soften the texts that describe the slaughter of every Canaanite man, woman and child. But I do not find any of them satisfactory.
A better covenant
I do think some things are clear. We should start with Jesus. Jesus and the New Testament fulfill many Old Testament teachings — by transcending and replacing them. We must start with Jesus, not the Old Testament.
Hebrews declares that the Old Testament Law is but “a shadow” of the reality disclosed in Jesus Christ (10:1-18). Now that Christ, the “exact representation” of God, has come, the old is set aside (Heb. 1:3).
In the new covenant, many things central to the old covenant — the Law, the temple, circumcision, the Sabbath, oaths, eye-for-an-eye retaliation — are no longer normative for God’s people.
As Hebrews makes clear, Jesus has replaced everything that the temple stood for and accomplished. The old covenant, with its sacrifices in the temple, is obsolete (8:13). Jesus has established a new covenant superior to the old one (7:22).
Jesus affirmed his superiority to the Law and the Prophets (Matt. 11:7-15). Jesus considered John the Baptist at least as great as the greatest Old Testament prophets. But then Jesus added that “whoever is least in the kingdom of heaven is greater than he” (verse 11) — a clear implication that Jesus and his dawning kingdom transcend the Law and the Prophets (compare Matt. 11:27; John 1:17-18).
The New Testament does not say that Jesus teaches something totally new. Rather, he fulfilled God’s plan to bless all nations through Abraham and his descendants (Gen. 12:1-3). Yet the Law — with its rules about food, circumcision and strict Sabbath observance — had erected a “dividing wall of hostility” between Jew and Gentile (Eph. 2:14). But Christ, “by setting . . . aside the law with its commands” (verse 15), enabled one new reconciled humanity of Jew and Gentile.
That was the mystery of the gospel “hidden for ages” (Col. 1:26). In fulfilling the promise of the Old Testament, Jesus and his new community transcended and set aside central aspects of the Old Testament.
It is in this context that we must understand Jesus’ setting aside of the Old Testament’s teaching on oaths and retaliation (“an eye for an eye”) — in fact, Jesus’ entire teaching and example against violence.
Many devout Jews of Jesus’ day fervently believed God would keep his ancient promises to Israel by sending a military Messiah who would wage violent war against the pagans, destroying them and establishing Jerusalem and a rebuilt temple as the center of the world.
Jesus did claim to be the expected Messiah. He did believe that God was fulfilling in himself the ancient promise to Abraham to make his descendants a blessing to the whole world. But he taught that loving enemies, not killing them, was God’s way.
Christians today believe, with the early Christians, that Jesus Christ is God’s final revelation to us. Since we believe that, we must start with Jesus’ teaching about who God is and what God demands of God’s people. To start with Old Testament statements about violence and insist that Jesus’ teaching must be interpreted to fit Old Testament texts contradicts New Testament teaching.
The New Testament understands the Old Testament through the lens of the final revelation in Christ. The former is but a shadow. To return to the shadow is to deny Christ.
That still leaves me without a fully satisfactory way to reconcile Old Testament statements about violence with Jesus and the New Testament.
Are these Old Testament statements simply misguided ideas by sinful, societally conditioned human beings? Perhaps, but I do not see how that fits with Jesus’ teaching about the Old Testament as the Word of God.
Did God actually command the slaughter of the Canaanites? Perhaps, and if God did, I accept that finite human beings have no authority or standing to judge the Infinite One.
But if Jesus was right in revealing that God is love — indeed, so profoundly love that God submits to the terror of crucifixion out of amazing, unfathomable love for sinful enemies — then I cannot see how the Father of Jesus would command genocide.
Some Old Testament prophets speak of a future day when God will establish a new covenant and bring a new day when swords will be beaten into plowshares. These texts fit with the understanding that, however we interpret the meaning of violence in the Old Testament, we now live under the new covenant, with its rejection of killing. And that new covenant fulfills many Old Testament provisions — Sabbath, Law, temple, circumcision, an “eye for an eye” — by setting them aside.
Perhaps on this side of eternity we will never have an adequate answer to the question of violence in the Old Testament. But this lack of clarity in no way leaves uncertain what faithful disciples of Jesus should believe and do. Since God’s final revelation, the eternal Son of God, calls his disciples to love their enemies, we must obey.
Ronald J. Sider is the founder and president emeritus of Evangelicals for Social Action and the author of more than 40 books, including If Jesus Is Lord: Loving Our Enemies in an Age of Violence (Baker, 2019), which discusses these issues in more detail, and Speak Your Peace: What the Bible Says About Loving Your Enemies, coming in February from Herald Press. He blogs at ronsiderblog.substack.com.