By John Sanidopoulos
When we encounter troublesome violence in the Old Testament that unsettles us, we may take some solace in the possibility that these texts reflect theological and ideological concerns as encountered by the communities that first read these books. Similarly, the Church Fathers tended to not read these stories and interpret them literally, but they transcended the literal reading. They knew that God is not a genocidal maniac who seeks the destruction of human beings, therefore they understood that these passages only truly make sense spiritually and theologically, as they are intended.
Let us take the Book of Joshua as an example. Joshua, who shared the same name as Jesus (Yeshua), was seen by the Fathers as a type of Christ, who entered the Promised Land, defeated his enemies in accordance with God's will, and established the chosen people of God in the future Kingdom of Israel. In the same way Christ was God incarnate on earth, overcame the devil and death in obedience to the Father, and established His Church for the future Kingdom.
St. John Chrysostom writes:
"The name of Jesus [Joshua] was a type. For this reason then, and because of the very name, the creation reverenced him. What then! Was no other person called Jesus [Joshua]? But this man was on this account so called as a type… He brought in the people into the promised land, as Jesus into heaven; not the law; since neither did Moses [enter the promised land] but remained outside. The law has not the power to bring in, but grace" (Homilies on Hebrews 27.6).
Another way they read the Book of Joshua was in an ascetic fashion, depicting the spiritual warfare that takes place in the heart of every Christian, by defeating the passions and sin in order for the grace of God to dwell within us. In both cases, the enemies of the chosen people of God are not human beings necessarily, but demons.
From Ode VI of the Great Canon of St. Andrew of Crete:
"Like Joshua the son of Nun, search and spy out, my soul, the land of thine inheritance and take up thy dwelling within it, through obedience to the law."
"Rise up and make war against the passions of the flesh, as Joshua against Amalek, ever gaining the victory over the Gibeonites, thy deceitful thoughts."
"O my soul, pass through the flowing waters of time like the Ark of old, and take possession of the land of promise: for God commands thee."
Many more quotations could be provided from patristic and liturgical texts, but these should suffice to illustrate the matter. As mentioned earlier, when we read and are repulsed by the slaughter and carnage in the Bible, we may take some solace in the very real possibility that these texts do not record history exactly as it happened, but rather they represent the ideology and theology of the Israelites and Jews as they struggled to take possession of the Land of Israel. That's not to say Joshua did not exist or lead the Israelites into the Promised Land, but certain details of the book that bears his name transcend the literal reading, revealing the great spiritual value of the inspired Scriptures. Seeing it this way brings us closer to the manner in which the Fathers interpreted these things, in a spiritual fashion, not literalistic.
Origen offers his explanation:
"When the Jews read these things, they become cruel and thirst after human blood, thinking that even holy persons so struck those who were living in Ai that not one of them was left 'who might be saved or who might escape' (Josh. 8:18-29). They do not understand that mysteries are dimly shadowed in these words and that they more truly indicate to us that we ought not to leave any of those demons deeply within, whose dwelling place is chaos and who rule in the abyss, but to destroy them all. We slay demons, but we do not annihilate their essence. For their work and their endeavor is to cause persons to sin. If we sin, they have life; but if we do not sin, they are destroyed. Therefore, all holy persons kill the inhabitants of Ai; they both annihilate and do not release any of them. They are doubtless those who guard their heart with all diligence so that evil thoughts do not proceed from it (cf. Mk. 7:21), and those who heed their mouth, so that 'no evil word' (Eph. 4:29) proceeds from it. Not to leave any who flee means this: when no evil word escapes them....
You will read in the Holy Scriptures about the battles of the just ones, about the slaughter and carnage of murderers, and that the saints spare none of their deeply rooted enemies. If they do spare them, they are even charged with sin, just as Saul was charged because he preserved the life of Agag king of Amalek. You should understand the wars of the just by the method I have set forth above, that these wars are waged by them against sin. But how will the just ones endure if they reserve even a little bit of sin? Therefore, this is said of them: 'They dd not leave behind even one who might be saved or might escape.'
Do you perhaps not believe me that the battle is joined against our sin? Then believe Paul as he says, 'Not yet to the shedding of blood have you resisted against sin' (Heb. 12:4). Do you see that the fight proposed for you is against sin and you must complete the battle even to the shedding of blood? Is it not evident that the divine Scriptures indicates these things, even as it habitually says, 'Sanctify war,' (Joel 3:9) and, 'You will fight the battle of the Lord' (1 Sam. 18:17).
For what is it to 'sanctify war' if not that you become holy in body and spirit (cf. 1 Cor. 7:24) after you destroy all the enemies of your soul, which are the blemishes of sins, and 'mortify your members that are on earth' (Col. 3:5), and cut away all evil desires? And that you boldly come to the presence of the living God, and, as a palm of victory by the merit of virtue are crowned by Christ Jesus our Lord?" (Homilies on Joshua 8).
We will conclude with a response of Saint Paisios the Athonite to the question: "Why, Elder, in the Old Testament was God's punishment so direct?" His answer helps us understand the spirit in which such passages should be understood:
That was the language and law they understood in the Old Testament. God was the same also at that time, but that law existed for those people because they did not understand anything else. Do not allow that law to seem harsh to you while thinking the gospel is different. It was that law that would bring benefit to them at the time. That law was not barbaric, but that generation was barbaric. People today may be more barbaric, but at least they understand. Now when an oil lamp shakes so many people are shocked! But do you see how many things God did back then? He sent ten plagues against Pharaoh, to remove the Israelites from Egypt. He dried up the Red Sea for them to cross over. He gave them a cloud by day, so they would not be burned by the sun, and a pillar of fire at night to guide them. And after all these events they reached the point where they sought for a god a golden calf (cf. Ex. 32:1-6)! Today people would never say that a golden calf would lead them to the Promised Land.