The following is an excerpt from a conversation I was involved in with regard to OT violence. This was written by a user named "Doom":
As far as the violence in the Bible. All of the violence in the Bible can be fit into one of four categories:
1. Stories where God kills someone (and violence is thus seen as a positive thing)
2. Stories where God asks human beings to kill someone for him (and violence is thus seen as a positive thing)
3. Stories where a horrific atrocity of some kind is committed, but where no direct moral judgment is passed by the author.
4. The vindictive passages, where one asks God to curse an enemy, or to avenge himself on an enemy or some such thing.
About the stories in category 1 and 2:
Okay, on the question of all the stories in the Bible where God kills people, or asks others to do it for him.
God, being the one who gives life, has the right to take life whenever he likes, and if he wishes to ask human beings to do the killing for him, then he has the right to do that as well.
But, you may ask 'doesn't this mean that man has the right to kill arbitrarily?'
The answer is 'no', and here is why: life is a gift from God. Man does not give life, God does. Hence, God can take life, but man cannot. (At least he can't unless he is given a direct order from God to do so.)
I would like to also make the point that since God is omnipotent; ultimately every life form that has ever died in the whole history of the universe has died because God willed that it die.
Therefore God is, whether directly or indirectly, responsible for the death of every living thing that has ever died.
I would also add, about the various laws in the book of Leviticus and elsewhere that demand death for things like sorcery, homosexuality and blasphemy, that the traditional Christian (as well as Jewish) view is that these laws are valid ONLY IN the context of ancient Israel. Keep in mind that ancient Israel was a theocracy, which was ruled by priest-kings who made all of their major decisions by directly consulting God by means of the Urim and Thumin and by other means. (Now, you don't have to concede that any of this was anything more than superstition in order to understand that this is what the ancient Israelites believed, whether true or false.) Since ancient Israel was established by God and ruled directly by God, therefore the rules were rather strict, because God lived in the temple, he was thus present in Israel in a way that he was not present anywhere else on the Earth.
But ancient Israel is dead, there is not a single government on this Earth that was established by God, not a single government on earth that is ruled directly by God, God does not dwell in any single place on earth, not Rome, not Jerusalem, not Mecca, there is nowhere on this Earth that God abides in a deeper way than he does anywhere else. Therefore those laws are no longer in effect.
Moreover, both Christians and Jews believe that this will not change except by the direct intervention of God. The modern state of Israel cannot be in any way identified with ancient Israel, because it is a secular state, founded by men, and not God. Both Christians and Jews believe that this will change only at the end of the age, when God intervenes directly in human affairs and sets things right. For Jews, this is the coming of the messiah, for Christians it is the second coming of Christ. In either case, this is not something that human beings can bring about, only God can make it happen.
Stories about horrible atrocities, but the Biblical author doesn't seem to comment one way or the other.
I simply wish to point out that not every story in the entire Bible is told from a standpoint of approval. If the Bible records a story of someone making a human sacrifice, this does not mean that the author approves of human sacrifice.
The argument 'X happened in the Bible, therefore the Biblical author must have approved of X' is not a valid argument.
Many of the stories in the Bible are told as warnings 'DON'T do this!', many others are told simply because the author is trying to record exactly what really happened and it would be wrong to try to whitewash history.
One of the books of the Bible that is most frequently criticized for its violence is the book of Judges. When reading Judges for the first time, it can seem rather monotonous. The book of Judges is just one horrible atrocity after another, there are stories of elaborate assassination plots, brutal violence, even what has to be one of the first recorded incidents of deliberate genocide, when the other 11 Israelite tribes try to exterminate the tribe of Benjamin.
It is easy to wonder 'what exactly is the point of this vast litany of brutality?'
The point is actually explained in the very last verse of the book of Judges which reads:
'In that time, Israel did not have a king, and everyone did what he himself felt was best in his own eyes."
You may wonder 'so what, Israel didn't have a king? who cares?', but if you think about it for a few seconds, it will quickly become clear what the author means. What he is saying is 'see, see how bad things were before Israel had a king? It was just violence and brutality all the day long, it was anarchy, it was chaos, thank God that we finally got a king, who was able to establish peace, order and tranquility in the kingdom, and bring an end to all this senseless slaughter!'
So, the book of Judges doesn't record all that senseless brutality in order to approve of it, but rather the opposite.
My point is that context matters.
Okay, category #4
What to do with the various 'vindictive' passages of the Bible, where someone is expressing violent rage and demanding revenge?
There are many such passages, but the most famous is from Psalm 136 (or 137 in the Hebrew) so let us quote the passage for maximum effect:
1 By the waters of Babylon, there we sat down and wept, when we remembered Zion. 2 On the willows there we hung up our lyres. 3 For there our captors required of us songs, and our tormentors, mirth, saying, "Sing us one of the songs of Zion!" 4 How shall we sing the LORD's song in a foreign land? 5 If I forget you, O Jerusalem, let my right hand wither! 6 Let my tongue cleave to the roof of my mouth, if I do not remember you, if I do not set Jerusalem above my highest joy!
7 Remember, O LORD, against the E'domites the day of Jerusalem, how they said, "Rase it, rase it! Down to its foundations!" 8 O daughter of Babylon, you devastator! Happy shall he be who requites you with what you have done to us! 9 Happy shall he be who takes your little ones and dashes them against the rock!
The really disturbing passage is the last one, which I have happily put in bold for maximum attention.
What a disgusting, disturbing thought! What is that doing in the Bible?
How have Christians and Jews, throughout history, interpreted this passage?
Well, Saint Augustine, in the 4th century AD, interpreted it allegorically, saying that the 'little ones' are our sins, and that we are to smash our sins against the rock in order to become holy.
That is not the most literal interpretation, but my point in mentioning it is that pretty much NO major Christian or Jewish commentator in the last 2,500 years or so has interpreted this to mean that it morally permissible to take babies and smash them against rocks.
Pretty much no one uses this passage as a justification for violence.
So what are we to make of this?
Let me explain it to you this way....
Sometimes in life, something bad happens to you, and it is not one of those things that you can just write off as 'nobody's fault' either, rather someone does something that deliberately hurts you, he kills your son, he rapes your daughter, he flies an airplane into the World Trade Center and kills 3,000 innocent people.....
Sometimes people do horrible things to you, not by accident, by purely out of hatred, malice and spite. Worse than this, it seems that they gets away with it to. They escape justice.
Sometimes your anger is so intense, that it builds up into a violent rage, and you want justice, you want to grab that gun and walk up to the courtroom as he is walking out, and shoot him in the head! You are so angry, you don't know if you can control yourself.
So what do you do? Where's the answer? Where's the relief?
The answer is, you pray, and you ask God, 'please lord, I have endured a horrible injustice, please, somehow, some way, set it right. Put right what once went wrong. Fix this, PLEASE!'
And so you ask God to punish the one who hurt you. You ask for justice.
And you say things like 'blessed be the one who takes your little ones and smashes them upon the rock!' You vent all of those angry feelings, those horrible sentiments, and just give it up to God, and ask him to make it all right somehow.
You don't go out and perform the deed yourself, you ask God to do it for you. You pray, 'please God, don't let me lose control, please help me to stay calm, and please set it right somehow.'
And then somehow you choke down your rage, and your hurt, and you try to forgive the one who hurt you, content that God will set it right somehow, in his own time, you try to turn all those negatives in a positive, and you try to go on with your life.
That's what you do.
And that is what those vindictive Bible passages are all about.