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Why does God seem so harsh in the Old Testament?

The challenge: There is a widespread view that God as depicted in the Jewish Scriptures (which Christians call the Old Testament) is harsh, brutal, legalistic. So different, Christians feel, from God as depicted in Jesus, about whom John remarks "God is love". Are they two different Gods, or two different socially-constructed views about God, or is there another way of understanding this?

I would like to put this in a broad perspective, which takes account of history and culture, as well as our current set of values. So I wrote a few sections below. Then a couple of people responded.


Initial Discussion

Contents of Initial Discussion:

Nazism, Communism and Nietzsche

I was born towards the end of one of the worst periods of human history - only three years after the Nazis were defeated, and half way through the Soviet communist era. The Nazis were responsible for killing around 6,000,000 Jews around 5,000,000 others [Note 1] in the Holocaust (not counting casualties of World War II). The Soviet communists under Stalin were responsible for killing probably 20,000,000, not counting casualties of war [Note 2] , as well as others later.

Both Nazism and Communism have their roots in the kind of paganism [Note 3] that Nietzsche proclaimed. Atheist Nietzsche hated the Judeo-Christian worldview, and despised Humanism for wanting to reject God but retain Judeo-Christian values. He claimed God is dead and promoted a "noble paganism", in which humanity guides history. Or, rather, the ‹bermensch (overman) guides history, as a hero who wields the world to his own advantage, with will and power. Nietzsche led the way in despising whom he thought was weak (whom he called "slaves"). The hero takes what he (almost always a he) wants, and Nietzsche told us he has a right to do so. The hero does what he wants, and can destroy anyone who gets in the way. That is where both Nazism and Communism followed.

This is expressed in pages 104-108 of C.S. Lewis' allegory, The Pilgrim's Regress, of which the following are some relevant phrases:

"The valley is a regular warren of caves inhabited by dwarfs. There are several species of them ... a black kind with black shirts and a red kind who call themselves Marxomanni. They are all very fierce and apparently quarrel a good deal but they all acknowledge some kind of vassalage this man Savage. ... Savage's nest is a terrifying place. It is a long hall like a barn ...He sat on a high chair at the end of his barn ... As soon as the dwarfs brought me in, Savage rapped on the table and bellowed out, 'Lay the board for us men' ...Then he shouted and drank himself ... 'But soon,' he said, 'I shall drink the blood of men from skulls.' At last he told me. He is breeding and training [dwarfs] for a descent [attack] on this country. When I tried to find out why, ... his theory seemed to be that fighting was an end in itself. ... he roared with laughter ... he laughed louder still. He said ... 'If I am to live in a world of destruction let me be its agent and not its patient.'"

The extreme cruelty and destruction of both Nazis and Communists has its roots in Nietzshean paganism. Nietzsche's will to power led to Nazi "blood and soil" and Communist state cruelty, all without reference to anything higher.


As far as we can tell, the paganism of the Canaanite peoples in the Old Testament era resembles, in several ways, the kind of paganism that Nietzsche promoted that led to the devastation wrought by both Nazism and Communism. Despite some differences, the results and impact are similar. The Canaanites revered heroes, treating ordinary folk as mere chattels or slaves. The stories about their kings like Keret, Elhu, Danel, Aqhat, etc. [Note 4] show them to be self-serving despots, willing to go to war for personal honour and dynasty.

Canaanite stories about their gods show these traits even more. Baal was seen as the Prince, lord of earth and sky and thunder and lightning, god of fertility, "mightiest of warriors", but as in feud with another god, his brother, Yam [Note 5]. Courage was one of his qualities and he slayed the 7-headed dragon, but at the victory feast, he complains about lack of a suitable palace; he already has one but wants one that is more extravagent. He resorts to bribery to get it. Once it is built, he arrogantly takes over others, and demands his enemies submit. When another god, Mot outdoes him, he thinks nothing of using animals as chattels in order to get his way, nor of cruelty, sending Mot vast numbers of live animals for Mot to feast upon. Moreover, the animals belonged to someone else. Again he fights. He sends monsters to attack the weak (handmaidens of other gods).

Such gods express and form the beliefs of the Canaanites about the meaning of life and how to live; they act in some way as role models. Those who were powerful found ratification in these stories for their own cruelty, affluence, arrogance and unconcern for the poor and animals. (Note: This is the reason God destroyed Sodom, if we believe Ezekiel 16:49.)

It is perhaps no wonder that at least some Canaanites sacrificed children as offerings to their gods. They elevated the dynasty above their responsibility to look after the earth. What they glorified was conspicuous wealth, arrogance, war, cruelty, revenge and injustice. No wonder resources and food were squandered and famines were frequent. Yet, even during famines, their elites still demanded privileges, pleasures, comforts and sports. Many of these things were activated among those elites who followed Nietzsche.

Such paganism is not confined to the Canaanites and those who follow Nietzsche. Is it not seen in The Art of War by Sun Zu, from 2,500 years ago in China, a time when Canaanism was having its most severe influence on Israel? War is not recognised as a destructive devastation, but is seen as an art form, a game played by the elites. War involved treating soldiers as trained chattels - just as Savage's dwarfs. "All war is based on deception." So deception was elevated to a virtue. Though this may be seen as Chinese 'cultured' paganism, it still led to misery, slavery and devastation.

Canaanism and Nietzsche

There might seem to be a difference between Nietzschean and Canaanite paganism, in that one is atheistic and the other is idol-centred, but in both cases,

This results in unnecessary killing, war and devastation, and builds a society characterized by misery, fear, oppression and injustice.

The People of Israel as People of God

God has compassion on all he made [Psalm 145:9] - humans and non-humans - and so devastation wrought on it makes him angrily sad. Destructive paganism, especially as expressed in Baal, had to be eradicated.

God set a special people in their midst - the people of Israel. God wanted the people of Israel to be a beacon of hope and righteousness, and show how a just society could prosper. He gave them laws (the Torah) that would guide their society to be a haven of hope and shalom, in which all people were essentially equal and even animals and even the land were treated with respect. Other people were invited to join them.

Though, from our elevated perspective of the 21st Century CE, we might find some faults in the Moasic Law, here are some examples from it that might show its stark contrast with paganism:

God's people were intended to represent the real, Living God and full reality among corrupt peoples, to give the latter a reason for turning to the right. The ways of the True God are ways of peace and prosperity for all.

Fulfilling such values in society was dependent on having only the True God, Yahweh, as their Deity. They were beholden to the True God, and this was to be reflected in all their religious practices. No idols. No worship of anything else. No worship of sun or moon. No dependence on mediums. They were to love Yahweh their God with all their heart, mind and strength, and their neighbour as themselves. (Modernist academics call this "exclusive Yahwism" in contrast with "inclusive Yahwism" and since the word "exclusive" and "inclusive" are heavy with negative and positive connotation respectively, perhaps this reveals the deeper mindset of modernist academia.)

There are signs that some of this view had spread to other rulers of the time. Three things may be said. One is that Abraham, 400 years before Moses, who was called "friend of God" [II Chron 20,7, Isa 41:8, Jas 2:23], understood much of this, and especially justice, and as he wandered around (nomadic) his ideas might have spread. A second is that Yahweh God was speaking into other nations (for example Balaam). A third is that, if we take Yahweh God to be Creator of earth and heavens including humanity then it is not unlikely that deepest in us is a penchant or desire for such justice, as tinder ready to be fired by the spark of a prophet like Abraham or Balaam.

One case is Hammurabi, who lived around 250 years after Abraham, whose famous Code includes something like "eye for eye". Hammurabi introduces his code with the Prologue in which he claims the gods called him to institute rssighteousness. This was a concept known to Abraham and is an important theme throughout both Jewish and Christian Bibles (see the page on Tsedeq (the Hebrew for righteousness and justice) [Note 6] . However, if we look closely at Hammurabi's Code, we find that justice for all is distorted by distinguishing elites from ordinary people. It may be seen as a kind of ameliorated paganism, perhaps influenced by what God was saying via people like Abraham.

The Failure

The ways of peace and prosperity would not come overnight, but might gradually increase over centuries, as long as the people of God lived as God wanted them to.

But they did not. After a few generations, they began to crave what the pagan nations had to offer. They turned to worship of Baal and other Canaanite gods, and found they quite liked the excitement that Baal-worship offered, even if it left many in misery. They wanted a king to lead them into battle [I Samuel 8] like the other nations had. Before that, God had raised up low-profile people ("judges") - including women - to protect them and deliver them from their enemies. I can imagine that depending on God to protect them can become a bit edgy at times, and having low-profile leaders to protect them was a little boring and unimaginative compared with the pagan heroism that they saw in their neighbours' heroes or kings.

God respected their wish for a king - though first asked the prophet Samuel to warn them how a king would take their wealth, their sons and daughters, etc. God chose Saul as a king for them, and the people were happy with that choice. And from the first king onwards, kings set up statues to honour themselves rather than God, refused to trust God in strategy, took many favours to themselves, taxed the people heavily in order to construct luxurious palaces, and so on. Some kings were worse at this than others.

Worse, most kings led the people away from the True God. Instead of modelling faith, love and justice, they modelled unfaith, arrogance and injustice as seen in deities like Baal. Yet the people followed willingly.

As a result, the society of Israel became more and more like pagan societies in their destructive devastation and idolatry. No longer caring about Yahweh God or their special role with him, they were no longer a beacon of hope and righteousness.

Where could those who wanted to escape pagan cruelty turn now? Nowhere.

God's Response

God's response was patience for over a thousand years, giving his people many chances, with warnings. Yet God's love for those who long for righteousness and deliverance from evil, and desired to live in relationship with him, was strong. Yet they were prevented from gaining what they desired, by the mindset that pervaded Israeli society at that time, and especially by their leaders (who nowadays we would call the opinion-formers, the politicians and the wealthy) [Ezekiel 34]. So, though patient, God acted. He let the people feel the natural results of their rebellion and idolatry, and after a time they would usually repent.

The history of Israel from the era of the judges to the end of the era of the kings was one of cycles:

We can trace many cycles like this during that thousand years. But the turning-away became gradually more and more severe. The people did not learn.

To my mind, this demonstrated that the human heart, even of those who have privileges of God's law and protection, is oriented away from the True God. And it will, unaided gravitate eventually towards destructive devastation. Such devastation is cruel and grieves the God of Love enormously.

But God, in his great mercy, had an even longer-term and deeper plan: He would enter the world Himself as Messiah and let evil do its worst to Himself - and demonstrate through rising again that he - LOVE - is stronger than and overcomes evil and death. And, through that, salvation would come to the world.

So, after many warnings, God let his people be taken out of their land. After they had a dose of being in Babylon for 70 years, He would bring them back, and prepare the ground for the coming of the Messiah.

When the Messiah came, the entire world could be saved, and saved more effectively than by mere national protections and laws. God's laws would be written on the hearts of those who accepted the Messiah [Jeremiah 31:31-34]. There would be a wider 'Israel', a people who were of God in a much deeper and more effective way. That people would still be subject to the temptations and revisionism that the people of Israel displayed, but the end effect would be more effective and glorious.

We are still working towards this today. And the entire creation eagerly awaits the mature 'sons' of God - those whose hearts are deeply transformed by the Spirit of God, Who grows his fruit in their very personalities, of love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, goodness, gentleness and self-control [Galatians 5:22-23].

For something more positive, which expands on some of the above, see:


Note 1. Killed by the Nazis in the Holocaust: 5.93m Jews, 3m Ethnic Pole, 3m Ukranian Slavs, 2-3m Soviet POWs, 1.5m Belarusian Slavs 400k Serbs, 270k Disabled, Roma 90-220k, Freemasons 80,000-200,000, Slovenes 20-25k, Homosexuals 6-16k, Jehovah's Witnesses 2.5-5k, Spanish Republicans 7k. (Not including casualties of war.) [Source: Wikipedia 'Holocaust Victims' accessed 7 March 2018]. Many non-Jews were killed because they were considered "Untemenschen", subhuman.

Note 2. Killed in Stalin's Soviet Union: Estimates vary between 6 and 61 million, with 20 million being the most accepted figure. (Not including casualties of war.)

Note 3. There is also a kind of paganism that believes that the natural world is inhabited by spirits but it lacks the desire for power. I am not talking about that kind of paganism. What the implications of that kind of paganism are is for another discussion.

Note 4. From 'Demi-gods and Heroes (Canaanite/Ugaritic Mythology)',

Note 5. See 'Primarily benificent and non-hostile gods p2 (Canaanite/Ugaritic Mythology)',

Note 6. Abraham met and deferred to Melchi-zedek (King of Righteousness) [Genesis 14:8] and he argued with God for justice [Genesis 18].


Piece by AndrewF

I found your piece on God of the OT interesting. There was a very large heresy in the first century, Marcionism, that thought the OT God was an 'ogre' who was different to Jesus. As you explain God appeared harsh because the people didn't listen and respond to him. I wonder if we find the OT God especially harsh because of our tolerant, 'soft' society. I imagine in a more brutal age, like the Victorian age and before, people would think God was behaving quite understandably - like their own rulers were.

I know the time when we were born [1940s-50s] was bad for many people but there were plenty of equally bad or worse times in history. Think of the black death or the Irish potato famine. Think of all the children dying young in former times. These were proportions of 50% or more. I suppose people experiencing times like those would not think the OT God's behavior unusual.

Your description of Nietzsche's philosophy of Ubermenschen did not seem that different to me from former British society. The aristocracy were the ubermenschen who were chosen by birth, not for heroic characteristics. I suppose Nietzsche thought the aristocracy etc. were much less worthy rulers than his heroes but much in the same vein. He would be against the church as it seemed to support the status quo. 'The rich man in his castle, the poor man at his gate, God made them high or lowly, and ordered their estate!' That is in 'All things bright and beautiful'.

Maybe our role politically is to push against which ever way the pendulum has swung. It seems to me to be too much to the right at the moment and could easily go even further. But Jesus would say we should be looking to the motes in our own eyes before we criticise others too much.

Thank you for all you do.

[received 11th March 2018]

Piece by AndyS

Note: This piece was written on-the-fly, with little thought, merely as a response. So it has both the limitations and the benefits one might expect. The benefit of this piece is that it weaves many issues together to form a whole picture in a short time, and does so with not a little humour - at least for those who know their New and Old Testaments well.

Dear Andrew (and Andrew!)

Thanks for the copy-in. I'm a bit rusty on the feudalism thing (and much else!) but the theory - I think - is that only organised polities like the Roman, Byzantine and Carolingian empires have the power to recruit, pay, and manage the logistics of full-time armies. For the Anglo-Saxon kings (for example), war meant calling out a peasant levy who wouldn't a) go far beyond their own patch b) stay more than a month or two in the field, c) be very fast or d) be effective if they ever managed to catch up with a mobile, well-armed, permanent opposition (ie the Norse and in their boats). So, you divide your peasantry into groups of four and each group pays for one man, a horse, and some decent gear, to serve for long periods. And now, you're cooking with gas as they say, but at the price of creating an armed elite who will start throwing their weight around in due course.

The harsh God of the OT: I think coming to terms with that is difficult (at least I'm not there yet). And often God isn't harsh - comparing himself to a woman giving birth, a mother and her baby, etc. Having pity on Nineveh (Nineveh! I can see why Jonah was upset!). And so on (as you point out to some extent). It's also worth pointing out that Jesus (and other Christian leaders) were firm believers in the Devil, Hell, and eternal damnation. And that we will be judged. That a lot of us forget this is a credit to how careful most preachers are to avoid the relevant texts I suspect. Anyway, I don't think the God of the NT is as pink and fluffy as he's often painted. I think He's as harsh in the NT. And as merciful.

I'm with Andrew F. at one level, that we rather spoiled folk are not best placed to judge harshness. For example as primitive warlords go, David was up there with the best/worst of them (psychopathic, spectacularly violent, genocidal, etc.), he'd have handled himself really well in Syria today I'm sure, and given Assad and Putin a run for their money. Nice poetry though. But if you live in a world where everyone else wants to kill you and your people (and he did), what options do you have? What would we have done? Got our retaliation in first and hard I suspect. At that level I don't have a problem with that kind of violence.

The harder bit is where God tells Joshua to wipe out men, women and children in some of the cities he conquers. Men, ok, they're soldiers and live and die by the sword. Women? Seems a bit harsh, though God clearly doesn't want his folk polluted by their practices. But children? And the children's pet hamster? The only redeeming feature is, I think, that Rahab spotted what was happening, and given the chance of a deal, took it with no questions asked. Presumably the others, if they'd had eyes to see, could have got the same deal, maybe.

And the hardest bit (for me anyway) is the Eyptians, plagued. Pharoah comes across as a tortured individual in some way, unable to make up his mind. But God had deliberately hardened his heart, it says - he's a puppet - for various reasons, so it winds up with all the Egyptians first-born children dying. So the Egyptians will know that Yahweh is God.

As a Christian I'm prepared to give God the benefit of the doubt on all this (and things like the way the innocent suffer and the guilty go free in this world). I assume when we get to glory we'll see how it all fits (and I pray He'll forgive my presumption in questioning His ways). But I don't see for the life of me how you can make sense of it for an atheist.

Also, FWIW: open the New Testament anywhere and you'll find a quote, concept or reference to the Old Testament. Well, almost anywhere. So for the first Christians God was the God of the OT. But they never use that OT God to sanction violence or territorial claims - so something's different.

Otherwise ... I think you'd need to quote some evidence for what stinkers the Canaanites were. I mean I think you're right, I just think you'd need internal evidence from the Bible plus anything else (arch., conventional history etc.). [In response to that, some evidence has been supplied in adding the documents about Canaanite gods and kings.] I think the connection with Nazism, Communism and Nietzsche are all clever but not quite convincing in draft form! Also is there a connection with Nietzsche and today's culture? I can see a connection between Communisim and today's culture: communists (like our advanced science-based culture), thought they could fix themselves, by themselves - the ultimate rejection of the Gospel I think. The stuff on Judges v. Kings I've always found fascinating. We get the choice between supermen like Stalin/Adolf, or the kind of democracy an American Fascist described: 'Democracy is the idea that the people know what's best for them, and deserve to get it - good and hard!'. Still, I prefer democracy I think! Finally there have been some efforts by others to explain how the God of the OT is actually 'good' - I've glanced at some of them but can't remember any, clearly I was unconvinced!

Well, I hope that was useful. I'm sure it's very faulty in places so apologies - if it sounds out of order in places it's probably because it is - beams in our eyes and all that. But good luck with the harsh God thing, I think it does need to be on the agenda and I'm glad you're keeping it there.

Best wishes,


Response by JudithC

Judith C very helpfully pointed out a number of minor errors and corrected them. More important, she suggested some important additions, which I have largely inforporated in the main text. These included mention of God's love for those who desire to live in rithteousness and in relationship with himself, and about the rising of the Messiah. Many thanks.

This page, "", is offered to God as on-going work. Comments, queries welcome.

Copyright (c) Andrew Basden at all dates below. But you may use this material subject to certain conditions.

Part of his pages, that open up discussion and exploration from a Christian ('xn') perspective. Written on the Amiga with Protext.

Created: 4 March 2018. Last updated: 18 March 2018 AndrewF and AndyS pieces, contents lists. Also incorporated suggested changes by JudithC. 30 April 2018 responded to AndyS's challenge to provide evidence of the attitudes and life of the Canaanites; added about Baal etc. 13 May 2018 Continued that.