Many serious Christians are concerned about the violence that permeates the Old Testament. They believe that it is inconsistent with the message of Jesus in the New Testament. Jesus suffered in the face of evil and violence. He did not fight against it. Engaging in violence seems to be inconsistent with his teaching and behaviour. This makes the violence of the Old Testament hard to explain.

I believe that the key understanding that is missing from most discussions on this topic is and understanding of spiritual warfare and the precariousness of the battle that God was fighting.

God Stymied

When Adam and Eve sinned against God, they handed authority over the earth to the spiritual forces of evil. The consequence of this authority shift was that God was shut out of the wonderful world he had created. He could not act on earth, unless a human called out and gave him authority to help.

When God gave Adam and Eve dominion over the earth, he meant what he said. He was not half-heartedly giving authority, thinking that he could take it back if things turned sour. That would have been dishonest, and God does not work like that.

God had a long-term strategy to restore his creation, but the first few thousand years were a hard struggle. He could not act on earth, unless humans asked for help. He can only act on earth, if humans give him authority, so he needed loyal people and a place to work. He needed humans to give him authority to act on earth. God had a plan to restore his influence, but it would take time.

For most of the Old Testament age, God was shut out of the world that he had created. During this long season, he only received rare opportunities to gain influence on earth. He used each of these very wisely, but could not make much progress. The spiritual powers of evil virtually had a free hand to work their evil on earth. God keeps his word, so when they lost it, he did not take back the authority over the earth that he had given to humans. He had to find other sub-optimal methods to accomplish his purposes. This sometimes made violence necessary.

In the Old Testament age, God had only a few people who walked in the Spirit, because the Holy Spirit could not be released in fullness until after the cross. However, there was a massive battle going on in the spiritual realms. Because humans had given the spiritual powers of evil authority over the earth, God had limited ability to fight against them. This was a serious struggle, and God had only limited authority to act to restrain them.

Sub-Optimal

God had to behave differently in the Old Testament age, because he was fighting against ruthless spiritual enemies with limited authority to act freely. In this constrained situation, he often had to use violence to keep the spiritual powers of evil from getting out of hand. The cross changed the nature of this battle. Once the powers of evil were defeated by Jesus, God no longer needed to use violence to deal with spiritual evil. His people could defeat the powers of evil by preaching the gospel in the power of the spirit and forces them to retreat in his name.

Until Jesus came and died on the cross and defeated the spiritual powers of evil, God was constrained in how he could deal with evil and restrain its harm. He often had to use violence to restrain evil from getting out of hand. He used his authority in the spiritual realms to release his angels to manipulate the struggles between the evil spiritual powers to accomplish his purposes. That sometimes resulted in violence. After Jesus, that violence was less necessary, because his people could defeat the spiritual powers of evil by the power of his blood and his word.

When the spiritual powers of evil tricked Adam and Eve into surrendering their authority on to them, they gained a huge victory against God, because they could prevent him from intervening on earth. Understanding this shift in the balance of power explains much of the violence in the Old Testament. God could only act if humans gave him permission, and that did not happen often, so the spiritual powers of evil had a free hand to work their evil.

Whenever God gained authority to act on earth, they reacted with dreadful violence on earth. The intensity of their evil attack often left God with no option but to use violence against them. This was the only tool that he had to restrain them. God would have preferred to use better methods for dealing with evil, but he could not do that until Jesus had come and defeated the spiritual powers of evil by dying on the cross. And God could not send Jesus until all the necessary preparation was complete. Otherwise, Jesus would have been destroyed as soon as he was born on earth (See God's Big Strategy).

Tense Time

The Old Testament age was a desperate time. The spiritual powers of evil had gained a great victory, and God's ability to respond was severely constrained. In this situation, God had to use violence from time to time, because that was the only way he could constrain the spiritual powers who were intent on using evil to wrecking God's world.

Jesus victory on the cross changed everything. He destroyed the authority on earth of the spiritual powers of evil. The best way to defeat them is to preach the good news of Jesus in the power of the Spirit. They can be defeated with the sword of the Spirit and the shield of faith. These are God's preferred method for dealing with evil.

God is always Sovereign

Of course, as creator, God has always remained sovereign over his creation. But as a sovereign creator, he freely chose to constrain his sovereignty by delegating authority on earth to the humans he created. A sovereign God can do that if he chooses. Giving humans authority and freedom limited his sovereignty. A God who cannot freely choose to limit his sovereignty in this way is not truly sovereign.

A sovereign God can choose not to control everything on earth. If God does control everything on earth all the time, he is responsible for evil. Actually, humans are responsible for evil, because they allowed evil into the domain that God entrusted to them.