The Old Testament needs to be seen in its historical setting.


People often have difficulty accepting what they read in the Old Testament, particularly:

  • GOD’S CHARACTER – God seems harsh rather than loving.
  • BLOODSHED – The Israelites kill large numbers of seemingly innocent people in the cities they conquer. Murder is common. The sacrificial system of offering lambs, goats and birds is gory.
  • IMPLAUSIBLE STORIES – Many of the narratives seem preposterous and difficult to believe because they are far beyond the realm of contemporary experience.

Each of these objections is explored below.


God seems stern and judgmental in the Old Testament. This is because only one part of his trinity (Father) was understood. At that time the world didn’t know about Jesus Christ or the Holy Spirit.

The Old Testament describes the era when God first began to reveal himself to mankind. A fuller revelation did not come until the New Testament, where we see his great love (through Jesus Christ) and his personal relationships (through the Holy Spirit).

The Old Testament focuses on God’s holiness and justice. The New Testament expands the picture to show his forgiveness and mercy.

The Old Testament shows life by law. The New Testament shows life by love.

In reading the Old Testament, it’s important to place it in its historical setting as the introduction to the New Testament. The Old Testament is the longest part, but the New Testament is the main story.


Many people have difficulty accepting the Old Testament as part of God's book because it portrays so much bloodshed, in addition to slavery, idolatry, deceit, theft, drunkenness and sexual promiscuity. It's all there, often in sordid detail.

The Old Testament doesn’t present life as God ideally wants it, but rather as it really is. People then, as now, had free will and often chose to ignore God, displaying behavior – even recorded in a holy book – that offends our Christian conscience.

Life was much different in the pre-Christian era than it is today. Christian concepts had not yet taken root in society. Life was crude, like it still is in parts of the world where Christianity has not yet penetrated.

Many times in the Old Testament, God directed the Israelites to wage war against their enemies. People now ask how a good God – who gave the Ten Commandments, saying not to kill – could condone warfare and sometimes even give instructions for killing apparently innocent people.

It's the same issue we face in society today when our nation is threatened by attack or subversion from another power. God would not be ‘good’ if he allowed his people to be ravished and his benevolent purpose thwarted by surrender to evil forces.

God usually required that the armies of Israel first offer the enemy an opportunity to surrender without bloodshed. Women and children were to be spared and given care. Only in the case of degenerate and depraved cities was there to be total destruction to prevent undermining of the moral and spiritual standards of Israelite society.


There are many narratives in the Old Testament which seem too preposterous to be true; such as when God caused the Red Sea to part so that the Israelites could walk across on dry land; when the walls of a city (Jericho) collapsed as the Israelites marched and made a loud noise according to God’s specific instructions; when a large fish swallowed a preacher (Jonah) thrown from a ship and then disgorged him intact on shore.

Perhaps the narrative that seems most preposterous of all is an account in the Old Testament commonly referred to as the story of Noah and the Ark. God was angered by rampant sin throughout the human race and he instructed Noah to build a huge three-story wooden vessel (450 feet long, 75 feet wide, and 45 feet high).

After 120 years of construction, Noah put on board a male and female of every major animal, reptile and bird species, along with his wife, three sons and three daughters-in-law, plus large provisions of food. A colossal flood resulted from a 40-day torrential rain and from gushing subterranean fissures, killing all other living creatures. When the waters subsided after 150 days, the vessel came to rest on a mountainside and the passengers re-populated the earth.

This account of Noah – and some other incredible stories recorded in the Old Testament – cause embarrassment to some Christians because they don’t really believe the stories themselves. (Fortunately, being a Christian requires only personal faith in Jesus Christ, not faith in every story in the Old Testament.) But the Bible reports these events as actual occurrences and there is supporting evidence. For example, in dozens of cultures throughout the world, the earliest stories of mankind refer back to a great flood. Written accounts of the flood are universal; even among people who could not have had any contact with the Israelites.

Even though Noah built his vessel long before the advent of large ships, the precise engineering design for it as recorded in the Bible is seaworthy for its cargo and remarkably in accord with modern shipbuilding principles.

The flood explains some of the mysteries of modern science, such as the wide-spread veneer of alluvium on the continents; the layer of Pleistocene animal bones discovered in numerous parts of the world in a violently separated state (obviously once underwater because of calcite cementing); and the marine sediments found thousands of feet up on mountain slopes.

Some people can accept the possibility that there may have been a colossal flood sent by God as punishment for rampant sin and that a remnant of life may have been saved on a special floating vessel, but they have difficulty believing that any human being could live to be nearly a thousand years old. (Noah died at age 950. Adam, the first man, died at 930. Methuselah, the oldest person on record, died at 969.)

The Bible says that early generations multiplied rapidly with long life, but eventually people ignored God and became terribly depraved. As part of God’s judgment with the flood, he declared:

‘My Spirit will not contend with man forever, for he is mortal; his days will be a hundred and twenty years.’

Therefore, human life span declined after the flood and God has imposed a new limit of 120 years. (This is exactly what modern medical science is saying today, thousands of years later.)

While some people have trouble believing human ages reported in the Bible, others have no trouble at all believing that God, the Creator, could shorten man’s life span any time at will and that he may have done things in the past, will do things in the future, he’s not doing now.

Here's a sampling of what the Bible says on this subject.

Exodus 14:21
God parted the Red Sea so Israelites could cross on dry land

Joshua 6:2-20
Walls of Jericho collapsed at trumpet blast and loud shout

Jonah 1:1-2:10
Jonah swallowed by large fish and vomited onto dry land

Genesis 6:9-9:28
Story of Noah and the ark

Genesis 6:3
God shortens man’s maximum life span to 120 years

Matthew 24:37-38
Jesus acknowledges the flood

For help, see Topic 29.

Posted in Bible Survey.