Why was God so vicious in the Old Testament?

The God of the Old Testament was involved in killing thousands upon thousands of people. In Genesis alone he drowned thousands in Noah’s flood, and he had Sodom and Gomorrah firebombed. In Exodus he wiped out the Egyptians’ firstborn, and buried Egypt’s war machine in the Red Sea. In Exodus 17:14 he promised to “completely erase” the Amalekites, and in Numbers he creamed anyone who threatened or attacked Israel. Huge slaughter commanded by God in each case; lots of blood, destruction and “no survivors” (Deuteronomy 2:34), and then came the total destruction of Jericho and “twelve thousand men and women” killed in Ai (Joshua 8:25).

Add up the thousands of Israelites yet to die because of their rebellion, and possibly millions more who died in attacks against Israel, all by God’s command or direct action, and we have a horrible picture of God emerging in the Old Testament, doling out bucket loads of death and suffering, and even on children too.

So why was God so vicious? Because, as Paul explains in Romans 5:13, “sin was in the world.” If there’d been no sin, in other words, there wouldn’t have been any death. But “sin entered the world” when Adam and Eve blatantly disobeyed God, totally disregarding why God had created them, “and in this way death came to all men” (verse 12), exactly as God had said it would back in Genesis 2:17.

But death wasn’t real, because people continued doing exactly what Adam and Eve did, totally ignoring God’s purpose for them. Clearly, then, humans had to learn what God meant by death, and how seriously he meant it. For nearly four thousand years, therefore, God made his promise of death real. Anyone who did not fit in with what he created humans for became expendable. He allowed millions of people to die violently, but their lives held no value anyway, because sin had already destroyed their value.

In Paul’s words in Romans 9:22, humans had become “objects” who deserved to be eradicated. Harsh words, but when God said “death” he meant death, horrible death, dreadful destruction, and human life becoming utterly useless and dispensable.

But after four thousand years of wasted human life, God sent Jesus to end that era of death. It had gone on long enough, but long enough to seal the brutal lesson in human history that human life is completely pointless and therefore totally dispensable “because of sin” (Romans 8:10). So, what is human life like without sin? Well, that’s what we’ve been finding out ever since Jesus “condemned sin in sinful man” (Romans 8:3). Now we’re learning what happens to humans who are tuned in to God’s purpose, and how valuable such a life becomes.

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What makes God really angry?

It’s very difficult not to lash out in anger at times, isn’t it? Your teenager sneaks off with the car, picks up friends, shows off, smacks into a fire hydrant, and lies about the whole episode when questioned. Or your 3 year-old defies your instructions, escapes in the Shopping Mall and disappears. Or a car in front doodles along at snail speed when you’re late for work, or a scam artist steals your life savings. Being angry is easy in this world, and understandably so in many cases, because of the atrocious, insensitive and belligerent behaviour of others.

But doesn’t God get extremely upset as well? Doesn’t he lash out in anger too? Yes. He threatened to kill every human alive in Genesis 6:7. He also told Moses to stand aside while he destroyed the Israelites in Exodus 32:10, and in Number 25:3 he “burned with anger” and demanded a public execution of many Israelites, having already killed 24,000 of them in a plague.

So what stirs such anger in God? It’s people who don’t trust him. He’s a jealous God, and we can easily understand what that means because we experience the same jealousy. A husband who adores his wife gets extremely angry if she trusts another man’s word over his. Parents blow fuses when their children think their friends know better. Wives are devastated when their husbands think they’re not trying to be attractive. Friends are ripped apart forever when one of them ditches the other because of what someone else said. When you love someone, or really like them, it breaks your heart when they don’t trust you. And broken hearts are highly explosive. There is nothing in the world that can contain a broken heart.

And why should there be? if there’s no trust there’s no relationship. You might as well end it right there. But God can’t end his relationship with us because he loves us, and he can never stop loving us. So it devastates him when we don’t trust him. But he gave us the ability to understand that about him, because we’re just as devastated when people don’t trust us. We know the feeling. And God obviously feels the same way we do. His wrath, then, is not some awful condemnation or proof, as atheists say, that God is a cold, heartless beast. Quite the opposite. His anger is proof of a broken heart. It’s proof he loves us.

It explains why God is so angry when we don’t believe his Son, John 3:36. To not trust Jesus is to not trust God, and it breaks God’s heart when that happens. And broken hearts get angry – as we ourselves experience too, right?

Who does God get angry at?

God gets angry at people, and he says who he gets angry at too – it’s those invited into his kingdom who “refused to come,” Matthew 22:3. The Jews of Jesus’ day were invited, for instance, but few responded, verse 14.

They thought the kingdom was already theirs, judging by the question thrown at Jesus in Luke 13:23 – “Lord, are only a few people going to be saved?” – the “few” being them, of course. But Jesus talks of people who arrive at the gate to God’s kingdom thinking they can just waltz on in, who “will not be able to,” verse 24. Instead, they’re met with a very cold “I don’t know you or where you come from,” and they’re shooed off as “evildoers,” verse 27.

Evildoers? But their credentials are good, surely. They’re “knocking and pleading” to enter the kingdom (verse 25), “We ate and drank with you (Jesus), and you taught in our streets” (verse 26), and in Matthew 7:22, many say, “Lord, Lord, did we not prophesy in your name, and in your name drive out demons and perform many miracles?” But Jesus shoos them away as evildoers too, verse 23.

How can that be? They’re allowing Jesus to teach in their neighbourhood and they’re using his name to do good, but Jesus banishes them. Why? Because there’s only a very narrow door through which people enter the kingdom, explained by Jesus in the next chapter when he offers to go to the home of a Roman soldier to heal his servant but the soldier replies, “Just say the word, and my servant will be healed,” Matthew 8:8, and Jesus’ reply is, “I have not found anyone in Israel with such great faith,” verse 10. That narrow door is faith in him (verses 11-12).

Faith in him how, though? Faith that the Father loves Jesus “and has placed everything in his hands,” John 3:35. Whoever believes that, verse 36, “has eternal life.” The person who doesn’t “will not see life, for God’s wrath remains upon him.” The Roman soldier, however, did believe it. Jesus only had to say the word and his servant would be healed. He believed Jesus had that kind of power and authority.

Who does God get angry at, then? Those who “refuse to come” to Jesus for that kind of power over everything in their lives. They rest their hopes instead on knowing Jesus, being favourable to him and listing all the good things they’ve done, but not on the power and authority God has given Jesus over every part of their lives to heal them and bring them into his kingdom whole and blameless. They’re trusting in themselves instead, and that’s what God gets angry at.