By Bob Sullivan
One of the common modern misperceptions of Christianity is that there was an “Old Testament” god and now there is a “New Testament” god. The “Old Testament” god was grumpier, angrier, and much more wrathful than the easy-going god we have today.
On one side, people have concluded that everyone but Hitler is going to Heaven, and many others have concluded that God is mean and therefore choose not to follow Him.
However, as Christians, we know that God is the same God we learn about in all 73 books of the Bible. He is beyond space and time, and therefore, He has always existed, and He never changes. (John 1:1-5 and James 1:17)
This dilemma has caused some people to ask why the Bible contains verses like 1 Samuel 15:3 “Now go and attack Amalek, and utterly destroy all that they have; do not spare them, but kill both man and woman, child and infant, ox and sheep, camel and donkey.”
This is known as a “ban.” A ban meant total destruction. The warriors were not allowed to take anything or spare anything. Hence the fact that every human and every animal was supposed to be killed. That is extremely wrathful, and with one key exception, we really don’t hear anything like this in the New Testament. There are other harsh passages like this in the Old Testament, such as the flood which destroyed everything except the occupants of the Ark, as well as Deuteronomy 7:1-3 and Joshua 6: 16-20.
Did God become more merciful over time, was the Bible mistranslated, or might God still decide to order the destruction of non-Christians in some sort of ethnic cleansing? How do we explain this?
One historical explanation of the “difficult” passages of the Old Testament comes from Origin, who lived in the 2nd and 3rd centuries. Origen taught that we are supposed to read these passages as allegories, not as though they are news reports about literal facts or an intricate explanation of a scientific study. An allegory is a story which is to be interpreted in order to reveal a deeper meaning. By looking at the above referenced verses as allegories, we can see that the enemies of God’s chosen people, the Amalekites, symbolize the battle between good and evil. Evil, like Amalek, is the belligerent aggressor. When confronted by evil, we must defend good aggressively, totally, and without reservation.
Another explanation points out the fact that the Philistines, Ammonites, Edomites, and others were people who worshipped false gods and engaged in atrocious practices such as sacrificing their children to the gods which is nothing short of Satanic. The Satanic underpinnings of many false gods are very real and were a true threat to the Israelites, just as Satan is a real threat to us today. This is why Scripture includes bans on people as well as things. Satan’s evil can even permeate inanimate objects and animals (Matthew 8:31-33). In extreme circumstances, evil could even exist in children who were rendered invincibly ignorant of God by their corrupt parents and corrupt community.
It is also important to remember that the Israelites were still being formed and developed as God’s chosen people when God was ordering Moses, Joshua, and Saul to destroy the enemies of Israel. They were still quite vulnerable to Satan’s evil, as shown in the story of the golden calf, King Solomon’s life, and the reasons for the division of Israel into the North and the South as well as the exiles.
Although God has not changed, humans have. The change came through the Passion, Death, and Resurrection of Jesus. You can look at this as Christ’s “ban” on sin. Hebrews 1:1-2 points this out: “Long ago God spoke to our ancestors in many and various ways by the prophets, but in these last days he has spoken to us by a Son, whom he appointed heir of all things, through whom he also created the worlds.”
Whereas the Israelites had to fight, sword, tooth, and nail against nations who wanted to destroy them, our battle has been fought and won by Jesus. Since winning the battle, God sent the Holy Spirit to guide us. In order to understand the violence of the Old Testament, you have to appreciate the power of the Cross and Pentecost in the New Testament.
Evil is still all around us, and it is just as deadly and vicious as it was in the Old Testament, but we do not fight this evil by marching into the neighboring town and killing everyone and destroying everything, because Jesus has already conquered evil. Our sword is the rosary, our shield is the Eucharist and the other sacraments, and our catapult and our battering ram are prayer, fasting, and penance.
After the fall in the Garden of Eden, God redeveloped the human race over many centuries until we were ready for the incarnation. While we are still a far cry from the original plan He had for us in the Garden of Eden, we have a multitude of advantages which Abraham, Moses, and King David’s people did not have. These advantages are all contained in the Catholic Church.
Through the sacraments, prayer, and personal sacrifice, we are to be just as relentless against pornography, human sex trafficking, child abuse, adultery, abortion, etc… as Saul was to be toward Amalek. The ban is still in existence. We cannot retain a little pornography, accept some abortions, tolerate some marital infidelity… any more than Saul could keep some of the plunder from the Amalekites. We must deny all immorality and all sin. Otherwise, we are like Saul who defied God’s order and only performed about 99% of the ban, thereby forfeiting his crown.