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Ask a Priest – Why Does God Seem So Violent in the Old Testament?

23 Aug 2013

Aug 23, 2013

I would like to know how the Catholic Church reconciles the “wrath” “repentence” and violence that occurs in the Old Testament by God?

Why would the all powerful, omnipotent God feel repentent for causing the flood that happens during Noah’s time? Or angry that humankind were commiting the deeds they were when He knew that it was all going to happen? Why would his heart ‘grieve’?

I would also love to understand the Catholic standing on the stories of Noah and the Flood and the Exodus story.

Answer:

It is important to keep in mind that the texts of the Old Testament date back to a time when the culture and mentality of people was very different from our current situation. It is a mistake to try and impose our mentality and expectations upon a text written thousands of years ago in very different circumstances.

God revealed himself to the people of Israel in a way that they understood according to their circumstances. We can also see how there is a gradual process of purification and a leading of the people to a fuller understanding of God and of what he wanted them to do.

In a reflection written on the Bible Benedict XVI noted that:

“It must be observed, however, that the concept of the fulfilment of the Scriptures is a complex one, since it has three dimensions: a basic aspect of continuity with the Old Testament revelation, an aspect of discontinuity and an aspect of fulfilment and transcendence. The mystery of Christ stands in continuity of intent with the sacrificial cult of the Old Testament, but it came to pass in a very different way, corresponding to a number of prophetic statements and thus reaching a perfection never previously obtained.” (Par. 40)

The Church has often insisted that we need to read the Old Testament in the light of the New Testament. The Catechism explains this in the following number.

“129 Christians therefore read the Old Testament in the light of Christ crucified and risen. Such typological reading discloses the inexhaustible content of the Old Testament; but it must not make us forget that the Old Testament retains its own intrinsic value as Revelation reaffirmed by our Lord himself.105 Besides, the New Testament has to be read in the light of the Old. Early Christian catechesis made constant use of the Old Testament.106 As an old saying put it, the New Testament lies hidden in the Old and the Old Testament is unveiled in the New.”

In paragraph 42 of the document I referred to earlier Benedict XVI referred to those parts of the Old Testament where we find expressions of violence or immorality. He said this:

“Here it must be remembered first and foremost that biblical revelation is deeply rooted in history. God’s plan is manifested progressively and it is accomplished slowly, in successive stages and despite human resistance. God chose a people and patiently worked to guide and educate them. Revelation is suited to the cultural and moral level of distant times and thus describes facts and customs, such as cheating and trickery, and acts of violence and massacre, without explicitly denouncing the immorality of such things. This can be explained by the historical context, yet it can cause the modern reader to be taken aback, especially if he or she fails to take account of the many “dark” deeds carried out down the centuries, and also in our own day. In the Old Testament, the preaching of the prophets vigorously challenged every kind of injustice and violence, whether collective or individual, and thus became God’s way of training his people in preparation for the Gospel. So it would be a mistake to neglect those passages of Scripture that strike us as problematic. Rather, we should be aware that the correct interpretation of these passages requires a degree of expertise, acquired through a training that interprets the texts in their historical-literary context and within the Christian perspective which has as its ultimate hermeneutical key “the Gospel and the new commandment of Jesus Christ brought about in the paschal mystery”.