Our tendency as Christians (perhaps due to a human tendency) is to deflect the appalling violence described in the Old Testament, rather than reflect on the very deep mystery it represents. The relationship between the Old and the New, we are told by Jesus himself, is one of continuity and fulfillment, rather than one of rupture. Yet the Old Testament must be faced and wrestled, as Jacob wrestled with the Angel of God. It speaks, posing a riddle it seems, and we cannot fail to answer.
One might answer that the Old Testament violence is the vocabulary spoken by the people of those times. No one who wishes to convert a people can fail to speak their language. Only by that means can their eyes be opened to truth, or, more precisely, to the One who is himself truth.
But is the violence depicted in the Old Testament no more than the vocabulary of its time? The horrors depicted reveal the horrors of sin, of its deadly grip, and the profoundly darkened vision that burdened all of humanity in those days, still utterly dedicated to a rule of its own making. Is it a cruel God who allowed such grotesque barbarity? That God is love was as true then as it is now. And he is only love, and loves his creatures foolishly and even madly, and wills for his creation only good. Yet where in the Old Testament is there the slightest evidence of this? On every page, if only we look with open eyes: Humanity, by its sin, had forged a path into the Valley of Death. And the only route of egress was the route by which we had entered, the route of our own choosing, our own making. But only on this very path would we face the visible, physical, and truly infernal effects of the sin that created the path in the first place, reaping the fruit of the seed we’d sown. And though all this suffering was necessary, it was not sufficient. It would finally be necessary for God himself to step into this history of appalling violence and injustice, because by that means alone could he lead us from the grave.
Had there been any other path, then God who is love would have led us by that route. But it was God who made of this path--the path of our choosing--the path of our salvation, and it was God who took our place at Calvary. Was it then a cruel God who allowed the atrocities of the Old Testament? The very idea is absurd. A cruel God would have left us utterly alone, to die in our sin. But the God of mercy led us out of the Valley of Death, suffering with us and for us, and finally answering the great riddle of the Old Testament.