Why Is the God of the OT Vengeful & Violent?

This is a common question among believers and nonbelievers alike. It is often raised after hearing a Scripture reading at Mass such as this one from the book of Isaiah:

From of old no one has heard
or perceived by the ear,
no eye has seen a God besides thee,
who works for those who wait for him.
Thou meetest him that joyfully works righteousness,
those that remember thee in thy ways.
Behold, thou wast angry, and we sinned;
in our sins we have been a long time, and shall we be saved?
We have all become like one who is unclean,
and all our righteous deeds are like a polluted garment.
We all fade like a leaf,
and our iniquities, like the wind, take us away.
There is no one that calls upon thy name,
that bestirs himself to take hold of thee;
for thou hast hid thy face from us,
and hast delivered us into the hand of our iniquities.
(Isaiah 64:4-7)

I found it hard to say, “Thanks be to God,” after that particular reading. Isaiah said God was angry and has hidden his face from us. It is not particularly what I wanted to hear, but when seen in the context of the other Mass readings of that day, the Church is pointing to the Deliverer that will come to take away our guilt. Taken in context, these seemingly harsh words of Isaiah can actually be seen as a hopeful message that God will eventually remedy the problem of guilt and sin.

We need to keep the following points in mind as we form our opinion of God based on certain “problematic” passages in the Old Testament:

  1. A particular passage, though it may be disconcerting, should not be taken out of context and used as the basis of our judgment of God. We must understand his actions in light of the whole of Sacred Scripture and Tradition.
  2. The expressions used in the Bible need to be understood in the context of the culture in which they were written.
  3. Since many today believe that any physical discipline of a child is taboo, it is not surprising that many find the thought of a God chastising his people with force disturbing.
  4. The overall message of the Old Testament is that God is for his people, and he has special concern for the oppressed, widowed, orphaned, poor, and homeless. We nowMartin,_John_-_The_Seventh_Plague_-_1823 condemn slavery, though this was widely practiced and accepted by nearly all cultures for most of world history. Thus, God gave his people laws to protect the slaves among them.
  5. Support for the death penalty for criminals has also “softened” up quite a bit since the Old Testament mandated death by stoning for offenses such as adultery, fortune-telling, blasphemy, and murder. In most Western countries the death penalty is reserved now for first degree murder, and even that is highly debated. (For a great article on the death penalty by Cardinal Avery Dulles, click here: http://www.catholiceducation.org/en/religion-and-philosophy/social-justice/catholicism-amp-capital-punishment.html)
  6. The majority of the violent acts in the Bible were perpetrated not by God but by people. The “violence” of God in the Old Testament was never arbitrary; rather, it was the consequence of disobedience or was to rescue his people (from slavery, for example, in the Exodus).
  7. One of the most difficult passages of Scripture is the concept of Herem Warfare, which involved the complete annihilation of a tribe or people. Again, this must be seen in the larger context of creating a land for his Chosen People and protecting them from the idolatry of the nations. (This concept is explained in the book Walking with God: A Journey through the Bible, by Jeff Cavins and Tim Gray, pp.114-116.)
  8. Evaluate your own God-given anger when your family is threatened or a minority group is harassed or abused. God’s “anger” is roused in the Bible whenever his people are threatened.
  9. Even Jesus was “violent” when he overturned the tables of the money-changers in the Temple. Why did he do this? Because they were unjustly taking advantage of the people coming to worship God.

God says that “vengeance is mine.” He is the ultimate judge; his ways are just, his judgments are always true. It is not for us to judge him or his ways. We should pray for the grace to understand those Scripture passages that disturb us so that we might understand the truth our loving God wants us to see.


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Emily Cavins

Emily received her BA in Classical and Near Eastern Archaeology from the University of Minnesota and is a tour leader of annual pilgrimages to Israel and other Bible related destinations. Her most recent publication is Lily of the Mohawks: The Story of St. Kateri, the first Native American Saint from North America.

She is the developer of the “Great Adventure Kids” bible study materials. She co-wrote the “Walking Toward Eternity: Making Choices for Today” Bible Study Series One and Two with her husband, Jeff. She is also the author of “Catholic Family Night,” a series of lessons covering all three liturgical reading cycles with one lesson per week throughout the entire year. Emily lives in Minnesota with Jeff, her husband of over 30 years.

  • Ronique Breaux Jord

    ..thought the last name looked familiar! Good to see the husband/wife team writing on these subjects. We like “Ascension Presents” for its practicality. God Bless..Happy Holidays!

  • Todd Seiler

    I think an important point to make is that the Israelites loved God. Everyone else in the world didn’t and they also didn’t love the Israelites. The Israelites were his family because they loved Him. When everyone else tried to attack and hurt His family, he destroyed those that did so. Ultimately, this was done in order to carve out a holy nation, a holy people, in order to foster an environment for the coming Messiah. Only in the destruction of the attackers will the ancestors of the attackers have the possibility of being saved through the Messiah. This destruction was done in order to save the maximum number of people possible. The quotation one may use is “cut off the dead limb so that a new one can grow in its place.”

  • Todd Seiler

    ” Isaiah said God was angry and has hidden his face from us.” From what I understand, God hid his face from us because we have become unrighteous or unjust because of our inequities. This is the reason we aren’t with Him now (kicked out of the garden). Only the righteous and purified can behold his face, otherwise, us beholding his face (literally being in his presence), will destroy us because righteousness and justice will always triumph (or destroy) unrighteousness. Therefore, he hid his face from us in order to protect us from being destroyed by his justice. This is a wonderful act of his kind mercy in order to protect us.

  • Greg_Pratt_123

    Emily – Must say that the ‘angry God’ of the OT used to be a curiosity to me. My own ‘interpretive skills’ are still in their infancy, as I only came to faith about 2 1/2 years ago, but I’ve spent the last few years learning from Jeff (and finally getting to meet him a few weeks ago here in Boca), and I can say that I’ve got a ‘feel’ for Scripture at this point. My ‘personal’ answer to the ‘angry God in the OT’ dilemma is two-fold:

    First, we need to remember that when we hear that ‘God is angry’, it is almost always the case that he is angry ‘for’ us rather than ‘at’ us. In other words, he is angry at sin (not us), and more importantly what sin does to us. It keeps us unhappy, ‘enslaved’, and certainly living less-than-perfect lives here on Earth. That was not what he had in mind for us.

    The second part of my own ‘answer’ stems from the fact that the obvious ‘dividing line’ between Old and New Testaments is the birth of Jesus Christ. And, seeing as Jesus came to reveal the Father to us, people were somewhat ‘in the dark’ about the character of the Father before the Incarnation. Therefore, if the prophets in the OT saw God’s loving anger played out, it would be easy to interpret that as a God ‘to be feared’, as opposed to a loving (but strict) Father. This same scenario is played out every day when teenagers ‘cry foul’ at their parents – before growing up to be a parent themselves (at which time they understand that all was done in love).

    Viewed this way, it’s easy (at least for me) to see that the ‘OT God’ is the same as the ‘NT God’, just misunderstood a little by ‘teenage prophets’.

    On a personal note, thank you for ‘sharing’ Jeff with all of us, so that we can benefit from his incredible teaching. I know my life has been radically altered for the better because of him.

    Peace,
    Greg

    • MarcAlcan

      First, we need to remember that when we hear that ‘God is angry’, it is almost always the case that he is angry ‘for’ us rather than ‘at’ us. In other words, he is angry at sin (not us), and more importantly what sin does to us

      In Father Barron’s words: God’s wrath is His passion to set things right.

  • Kathleen Andrews

    Thank you Emily. Your comments on the acceptance of slavery in the past caused a light bulb to go off in my head. It explains a lot. God is for us and tries to meet us where we are so He can bring us closer to HIm.

  • Reed Chauffe

    The God of the OT was mostly about the need for the chosen people of Israel to worship and put their trust in God and not to worship pagan gods of that of the Gentiles. As Jesus began his ministry in the writings of the NT, He taught that all mankind was worthy to enter the kingdom of Heaven, even the Gentiles who turned away from their pagan gods and started following the True Christ. Even today the Jewish people are still looking for their Messiah who will reunite the twelve tribes of Israel.

  • Reed Chauffe

    Thank you Emily for the wisdom of Isaiah and your comments. I will pass this on to my facilitators as reference to questions that are asked sometimes in group discussions.

  • Patty Hughes

    Thank you for making a simple explanation for something that a lot of Christians ask me about, i.e. How the God of the OT seems to be so different from the God of the NT.

  • Kim Barber

    Great insights Emily Cavins!