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Did God Get Away with Murder in the Bible?

by Shirley Paulson, PhD

Early Christian sarcophagus (Abraham and Isaac at left) in the crypt of the abbey church of Saint-Victor, Marseille

Early Christian sarcophagus (Abraham and Isaac at left) in the crypt of the abbey church of Saint-Victor, Marseille. Photo by Mark Landon, CC BY 4.0, via Wikimedia Commons.

A lot of my friends think God really did get away with murder in the Bible. Well, here’s the truth. There is plenty of evidence that God not only encouraged murder, but commanded it! Some people tell me this is the reason they don’t like reading the Bible. Others say this is the reason they reject the Bible altogether. But I think the issue is actually pretty complicated, and the concern about God’s complicity in the violence of the Bible requires a closer look.

Examples of God’s promotion of killing

On the surface, we could list countless examples of God killing people or commanding human beings to kill others. To mention just a few:

  1. God only saved Noah’s immediate family, while sending a great flood to kill everyone else on earth. (Gen 6:13)
  2. God commanded Abraham to kill his son by sacrifice (although he was spared at the last minute). (Gen 22:2)
  3. God sent down a plague that killed all the first born Egyptian children when the Hebrews were released from slavery. (Ex 11)
  4. God commanded Joshua’s army to kill all the inhabitants of Jericho and Ai. (Joshua 7)
  5. Presumably under God’s guidance, Peter cursed Ananias and Sapphira, and they immediately gave up the ghost. (Acts 5)
  6. From the fourth seal in Revelation, a quarter of the earth’s population was to be killed by the sword, starvation, and wild animals. (Rev 6:8)
Examples of God’s promotion of loving kindness

But Bible readers also know that God not only prohibits killing, but actually commands lovingkindness. For example,

  1. The sixth commandment God gave to Moses is “Thou shalt not kill.” (Ex 20:13)
  2. Micah, the prophet, said the Lord requires lovingkindness. (6:8)
  3. Jesus said in his ‘Sermon on the Mount’ to love our enemies and turn our cheek when assaulted. (Mat 5:39)
  4. To be clear, Jesus said that even evil intentions were wrong because all wickedness, including murder, comes from the heart first. (Mark 7:21)
  5. Jesus exhibited an attitude of supporting life, not death, by commanding Lazarus to come out of the tomb. (John 11:43)
  6. When the Romans captured Jesus, he told his followers to put their swords away. (Mat 26:52)

These Bible accounts seem at odds, don’t they?

It’s confusing. The stories don’t represent two different gods but the same God. And it’s not a matter of a God who murders versus a God who loves, or a Jewish God versus a Christian God. God is portrayed as requiring murder and commanding mercy in both the Hebrew Bible and the New Testament.

It’s complicated!

When we look closer, we see there is a common theme in the accounts in which God is portrayed as the instigator of murder.  In these accounts, God is acting as the protector of God’s own people. The authors of these ancient books consistently conveyed a message of intolerance for people’s unwillingness to live in accord with God’s rules of order. Disaster befalls the disobedient, and heavenly rewards come to the obedient.

I think God—through God’s prophets—needed to portray how severe the consequences are for disobedience, but also needed to make clear how people were to behave in a right relationship to God.

Consistency in God’s unconditional love and requirement to love

We are not looking at a God who’s all over the place morally. We are not looking at a God with unreasonable whims. Rather, there’s a consistency in the God who loves unconditionally and who requires the same in us.

Our difficulty in the modern era is that we are trying to use our modern sensibilities to understand an ancient story, a story rooted in people’s basic concepts of life during that time. Our modern sense of outrage and injustice is activated when we read a story that appears, to us, to be about people killed as object lessons. That’s where our minds go, and it makes it difficult for us to understand that the focus for the ancient authors rested completely in portraying the consistent requirement from God to stay faithful to God as God is faithful to us. Period.

In the context of the experience of people living 3,000 years ago, people would naturally interpret such stories as dual warnings and promises from an almighty God.

In the intensely heart-pounding story of Abraham preparing to sacrifice (not murder) his son, the emphasis is entirely on Abraham’s relationship to God. Sacrifice was the normal way of worshiping any God in antiquity. Could Abraham obey God even if his heart pulled in a contrary direction?

Our minds, in the 21st century, go immediately to what Isaac was thinking and the horror of a father being willing to kill his son in the name of God! But to people of that time, the story was all about Abraham being willing sacrifice that which was most important to him in obedience to God. The result, of course, was that the same God, satisfied with his obedience, rewarded him with the life of his son. These days, ritual sacrifice is no part of any religious practice we would condone. But this was a story written for an audience that lived over 3,000 years ago. We have to consider the story in its context to understand its meaning.

Reading in context versus misinterpretation

Modern misinterpretations of these ancient stories have resulted in disastrous outcomes. We’ve seen these Bible stories used as justification for everything from ethnic cleansing to enslavement to colonization. But this was never the intent of these authors.

If we can allow ourselves to hear these stories from the perspective of teaching obedience and loyalty to God, then we can recognize how they are consistent with the other Biblical messages about lovingkindness toward all, including our enemies.

God’s instructions to love others unconditionally is what keeps us in proper relationship to God and obedience to God’s teachings.

In fact, this law of lovingkindness is so strong in the Biblical context, that the failure to comply is what leads to the ultimate penalty, death. When the Egyptians refused to provide humane treatment for the Hebrews, they suffered death. Peter’s curse on Ananias and Sapphira comes as a result of their failure to love the community above their own interests.

There are other writings from the New Testament era that add even more context to this consistent message of loving unconditionally, even as it applies to our enemies.

Jesus followers who practice unconditional love

The Letter of Peter to Philip describes a situation in which the followers of Jesus were facing death threats after Jesus’s crucifixion. The ‘voice’ they heard in prayer turned their focus away from their fear and toward their relationship to God. They are commanded, in essence, to cleanse their inner selves and to become light-givers to everyone around them. As in other Biblical stories, the focus is on each person’s relationship to God. As a result of obedience to the law of love, the author tells us that they ended up going out into the world “with joy” and that “they healed a crowd.”

There is another early Christian story which illustrates this kind of powerful obedience to the law of love. When the second pandemic ripped through the Roman Empire in the third century, many of the Jesus-following Jews devised a system of care for victims of the plague. Even though this was a period of unusually potent persecution from Rome, Cyprian, the bishop from Carthage, responded to the crisis by calling on the Christians to not only aid their own people, but to also aid the Romans, their persecutors. While the general population deserted the sick and threw their dead bodies onto the streets, Cyprian appealed to Jesus’s command for unconditional love for all.

It’s no wonder this is the period in which Christianity first began to spread exponentially.

If we modern Bible readers can take seriously Biblical teachings of unconditional love, and lean into the historical setting in which the stories were written, we can find the consistency of God’s requirements in both stories of violence and stories of lovingkindness. The key is God’s absolute command for obedience to this law of love and the blessings that come with it.

This post is available as a Bible and Beyond Video Essay. Watch it on YouTube here.