Why is God so harsh in the Old Testament?


Some sceptics criticise God when, for example, He tells Israel to '...attack the Amalekites and totally destroy everything that belongs to them. Do not spare them; put to death men and women, children and infants, cattle and sheep, camels and donkeys.' (1 Samuel 15:3). They argue that these are the commands of a cruel dictator rather than a loving God.

How seriously should we take this argument? And how can we explain why God appears so harsh in the Old Testament[1] and yet so loving in the New Testament?[2]

It is not helpful to criticise God

We can get frustrated at our lack of understanding of God and end up criticising Him or denying He exists; but this is not a wise thing to do.[3] He is far greater than us and we should fear in case we offend Him.[4]

A better way is to seek Him as He is. You, God, are my God, earnestly I seek you; I thirst for you, my whole being longs for you... (Psalm 63:1). If we respect God first, then we will begin to understand him. The fear of the LORD is the beginning of knowledge... (Proverbs 1:7).[5]

God is righteous and not cruel

When Israel came into the Promised Land, God told them to completely destroy the existing nations. He wanted to judge those nations for the wickedness they did earlier and to deter Israel from copying them.[6]

From our viewpoint, this appears incredibly harsh; however we must remember that God is infinitely holy and perfectly righteous. He sees things we do not see[7] and also He holds nations accountable as well as individuals.[8]

Other times, we see God as loving and merciful ...But you are a forgiving God, gracious and compassionate, slow to anger and abounding in love... (Nehemiah 9:17). Whatever the situation, He is never motivated by cruelty ...he does not willingly bring affliction or grief to anyone (Lamentations 3:33). Cruelty implies a desire to see someone suffer. He hates sin and must deal with it fully, but at the same time He is very willing to forgive.[9]

God became more approachable
when Jesus died for our sins

Although God never changes,[10] His relationship with mankind can. In the Old Testament He covenanted with Israel to be their God and for them to be His people.[11]

Why is God so harsh
in the Old Testament?

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As a nation they had to obey the Law, sacrifice animals for their sins and punish evildoers so He could live among them.[12]

The Israelites could never be perfected by their sacrifices because they had to keep offering them.[13] They were continually reminded of their sin and that God is holy, and had to keep their distance from Him.[14]

In the New Testament Jesus offers us a better covenant ...the covenant of which he is mediator is superior to the old one, since the new covenant is established on better promises (Hebrews 8:6). Through it, we can come right into God's presence and experience His love. For by one sacrifice he has made perfect for ever those who are being made holy (Hebrews 10:14). For God so loved the world that he gave his one and only son, that whoever believes in him shall not perish but have eternal life (John 3:16).